Where Does TJ Miller’s ‘Silicon Valley’ Exit Leave the Show — and HBO?

Actor’s departure ahead of Season 5 could be a tough loss for the comedy

Corina Marie Howell/For TheWrap

It was a week of peaks and valleys for “Silicon Valley” fans, as HBO announced on Thursday that the show will return for Season 5 but without co-star T.J. Miller, the star behind Erlich Bachman.

Can the Emmy-winning series withstand the loss of arguably its biggest name — and where does this leave the network and its comedy prospects?

Since its April 2014 launch, Miller has been among the show’s five core cast members, along with Thomas Middleditch (Richard), Martin Starr (Gilfoyle), Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh) and Zach Woods (Jared). Although not quite an awards-season player on the level of “Veep,” the series remains one of the key components of the channel’s comedy slate… and one of the most consistently funny shows on TV.

“I think the show is losing one of its comedic weapons,” Saul Austerlitz, pop culture writer and author of the book “Sitcom,” tells TheWrap.

But he says that the ensemble nature of the show may help soften the blow: “They can either emphasize the other characters more — I think they have a lot of very talented performers and a lot of potential directions they can go without him — or they can decide to adapt by adding some other similar new character.”

Austerlitz doesn’t see this as “doomsday for ‘Silicon Valley’ by any means,” noting that the show adjusted following the death of Christopher Evan Welch (Peter Gregory) after Season 1 by adding the similarly quirky Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer) as the new Raviga CEO.

According to Bill Mesce, author of “Inside the Rise of HBO,” it’s hard to predict whether Miller’s exit will change “Silicon Valley” for the worse. “I think the idea that there’s some sort of axiom to this kind of thing is false,” Mesce tells TheWrap. “The most honest answer you can give is, ‘We’ll see.’”

Jason Mittell, professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College, sees the change as a potential asset in that it might allow the guys’ internet startup, Pied Piper, to experience new levels of success.

“One of the things that has been a constant over the series has been that its core crew of coders have lived in Bachman’s house and been part of his incubator,” says Mittell, co-author of the book “How to Watch Television.” “Maybe they’ll stay there, and someone else will take over the incubator — but there’s also the opportunity that the company will actually achieve success and be able to move into offices and not be living there.”

This is certainly not the first time that an ensemble sitcom has dealt with the loss of a key player. Asterlitz praises “M*A*S*H” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as two popular series that deftly handled cast exits by “creating new characters that sort of filled the same slot without actually specifically replacing those particular characters.”

But there are also examples of shows that couldn’t bounce back as easily. Mesce points out that “CSI” was never the same after parting ways with William Petersen (Gil Grissom). And Mittell cites NBC’s “NewsRadio,” which brought Jon Lovitz (Max Louis) on for Season 5 to fill the void left by the late Phil Hartman (Bill McNeal). The show was canceled after that season.

“I don’t think that that’s the reason why [‘NewsRadio’] went off the air the next year, but it certainly didn’t help because you saw the seams of the show a lot more, you saw them try to work to introduce a new character,” Mittell says.

Still, he notes, the “chemistry there was much more important” on that show than on a satire like “Silicon Valley.”

Miller’s exit comes at a time when HBO is working to establish its comedic future, having recently launched a number of new half-hour series, including “Insecure” and “Crashing.” “Girls,” which helped shape the network’s comedy identity in recent years, signed off in April after six seasons.

“Every channel, every network needs to get a new hit every few years, and right now, I don’t think HBO has a comedy hit in the works,” Mittell says. “I don’t think that they are in a rocky place, but I don’t think that they are in a highly developed and confident place with their comedies.”

HBO declined to comment for this story, and Miller’s rep did not respond to a request for comment.