I’m Dying Up Here gets its quota of show-offy filmmaking out of the way immediately in its second episode: The camera follows Adam (RJ Cyler) from the Goldie’s parking lot, into the club, to the backstage area, and onto the stage for his umpteenth open-mic performance. The confident rush of this sequence eventually contrasts with Adam’s story for this episode, which finds him very much isolated from the hustle and bustle of Goldie’s (the club) and spending time in the far more hermetic environment of Goldie’s (the home where Goldie lives by herself). When Goldie catches a snippet of Adam’s act that alludes to his skills as a handyman – in the world of I’m Dying Up Here so far, all worthwhile stand-up is essentially tough yet heartfelt autobiography – she asks him over to her home to help with some odd jobs, including painting the bedroom of her absent daughter.

Adam, unsure of whether this work counts as some kind of stealth audition to promote him up from open-mic night, does his best to interject some hastily-crafted wisecracks into their conversations. Melissa Leo dials her performance down from the slightly hammy introduction she received in the pilot, and mostly offers stonefaced reactions to Adam’s attempts to show off his comic bona fides, while answering his more straight-faced questions honestly, if tersely.

There are predictable elements of this storyline, as there are on just about all of the episode’s storylines, especially the eventual revelation of the (basically unknown) whereabouts of Goldie’s daughter. But the Adam/Goldie story largely stands apart from the rest of the episode. It’s quiet, uncomfortable, and a little bit poignant. The clear separation of Goldie’s work and home aesthetics – her home is relatively spare and tasteful – adds some dimension to the character and Leo’s performance. Cyler is probably best-known, depending on your preferences in young-adult-targeted entertainment, as either Earl from Me And Earl And The Dying Girl or one of the new Power Rangers, is also affecting as he tries to suss out whether he’s being scouted, exploited, or something else entirely.

The slight ambiguities of this storyline are also present in the episode’s thread about Bill (Andrew Santino) getting a shot to appear on Midnight Special after a producer catches his act at Goldie’s. But here the mysteries of human behavior are less productive: The shift from Cassie to Bill feels a little abrupt, much like the revelation that Cassie and Bill apparently aren’t just having casual sex, but have been developing something resembling an actual relationship over the past four months. Early in the episode, they decide that Cassie is Bill’s girlfriend (a term emphasized for her far more than “boyfriend” is for him), and their story kinda-sorta tries to reconcile that status with her separate status as a fellow comedian.

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Here’s the gist of this storyline: Bill is kind of the worst. I don’t mean that he’s an unlikable character, although he is often that. I mean that he is not especially compelling, and his motivations seem driven by a generic idea of comedian insecurity than anything that feels remotely organic beyond his comedy not being very good (which is one of the least interesting reasons given that we have to listen to his routines). The show doesn’t do the hard work of explaining why Bill would show up at Cassie’s late-night performance at Goldie’s just to hassle her about not sticking around for an uncomfortable dinner with his family, and then immediately escalate the argument into him spitefully “warming up” the stage for her and then melting down and cursing out his disinterested crowd (and accusing her of holding a torch for Clay, a character not actually mentioned in the rest of the episode, not even by Cassie). Of course, his on-stage freak-out results in him losing his TV spot, and though he’s on his way to accepting this by the episode’s end, he still chides Cassie for joining in with his requested ball-busting about the incident.

The core of this story is interesting: Bill thinks it’s great to have a comedian as a girlfriend, until his ego demands more of the latter than the former. But it would probably be more interesting with more of Cassie’s point of view factored into the second half of the episode, or if Bill’s relationship with his dismissive dad was a little fresher. Specifically, it would be great if, over the course of this or another comic-centric series, we could see a parent character who actually likes the idea of his or her kid as a comedian – just for the sake of novelty. To be fair, I’m Dying Up There does add some shading to this tired trope in a scene where, after Bill loses his TV spot, his dad tells him it’s not his fault, because members of their family are simply cursed to mediocrity; it’s their lot in life. Having the parent try to offer sincere (and terrible) consolation without actively condescending or misunderstanding the kid’s profession is a major step up; no one tells Bill that his brother is standing in the middle of Afghanistan, for example.

So the real problem with this episode is Bill himself (and presumably the writing of his character, rather than Santino’s performance, though the actor certainly doesn’t bring the character to lovable life). His hair-trigger resentment of Cassie’s independence would hit harder if he was actually the neurotic sorta-sometimes-nice guy the show seems to think he is, or if Cassie’s polite duck-out felt like more of a conscious/selfish decision than legitimately casual, or if Bill was a powerful force, able to summon his vast comedic powers for petty revenge. But except when he’s alone with his family, he’s the least funny character in any of his scenes.

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Then again, by repeating the first minute or two of Bill’s routine about marriage several times, I’m Dying Up Here really clarifies that it’s not intending to wring the maximum laughs from its premise. Even if Bill’s routine was especially good (and it’s not), it would probably wear thin after three run-throughs. That’s probably for the best. It’s less promising that Bill himself is starting to wear thin after just two episodes.

Stray observations:

  • Maybe this a cable drama cliché (and one I’m enabling by praising it here), but a lot of the most energetic stuff in the second episode was predicated on violence. There’s Ralph’s sudden, brutal, and kind of awesome beating of a racist heckler (they kind of stacked the having the heckler practically state: “I am a racist heckler. I have heckled before, I will heckle again, and no black man will ever stop me” – but whatever, it was still satisfying and a little surprising to see him viciously beaten). And then there’s a funny back-and-forth chase between Eddie and a laundromat thief: First he’s chasing her, then he catches her and she pulls a knife, then she’s chasing him, then she corners him and the blade falls off her knife and he’s back after her. I’m not sure this scene was necessary to the episode’s story at all, and I loved it.
  • Speaking of Eddie and Ron, his best friend and apparent time-traveler from the late ’00s (seriously, Clark Duke doesn’t seem able to reach further back than maybe 2005 in terms of inhabiting the comic voice of another time period), they go on Let’s Make A Deal in hopes of winning something they could sell for food money. It’s a pretty silly subplot, but the kicker (the boys losing their valuable pool table for a gag prize, only to wind up with a nigh-endless and to them extremely valuable supply of Rice-a-Roni as a consolation) is pretty solid. I once saw a super-smart trivia buddy go on Deal and win a hot tub full of nacho cheese, so I was half-expecting them to wind something that they couldn’t actually transport out of the studio.
  • Actually Funny Riff Watch: A lot of the comic one-upmanship of the inter-comedian banter continues to feel very written. But Edgar coming across the beaten racist heckler and cheerfully offering to sell him weed made me laugh out loud.

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