It takes four episodes for I’m Dying Up Here to go full Vinyl. The coked-out, Mercer-Arts-Center-leveling memory of that Martin Scorsese (and Terence Winter and Rich Cohen and Mick Jagger) production is going to haunt pay-TV 1970s period pieces for years to come, but for a few weeks, it’ll seem like I’m Dying Up Here has defeated the curse of Richie Finestra. But then Showtime’s comedy-scene drama—based on the nonfiction book by William Knoedelseder and produced by Jim Carrey—stages a battle-of-the-sexes episode in the foreground of the famed tennis match billed as The Battle Of The Sexes. And just like that, all of the cool confidence and behind-closed-doors allure of a promising series dissolves into flop sweat. Last year it was Bobby Cannavale discovering “the truth” in the middle of a literally ground-shaking New York Dolls set, this year it’s Melissa Leo smiling while Billie Jean King puts Bobby Riggs away in straight sets. Either way, it feels like taking King’s racquet to the back of the head.
I’m Dying Up Here is a heartbreaker. It comes on looking like it’s going to resist the temptations that did in Vinyl and dozens of other high-profile cable programs. But you take your eye off it for a second and the golden child is suddenly neck-deep in smack, tits, and faux-profound pronouncements about how showbiz works. It’s doubly heartbreaking because I’m Dying Up Here initially brings something novel to a separate, similarly crowded field, the one populated by stand-up comedians plumbing biographical and psychological depths in the vein of Louis CK. Whereas those series work from the inside out, I’m Dying Up Here goes outside in. Its starting point is Knoedelseder’s chronicle of a period when comedians flocked to Los Angeles to break into TV and movies by cutting their teeth on stages where they went largely unpaid and underappreciated.
The nexus of that scene, The Comedy Store, forms the basis for I’m Dying Up Here’s Goldie’s, the eponymous club run by a hard-nosed, protective and vindictive Mitzi Shore figure played by Melissa Leo. Famous names and faces move through Goldie’s turf, but her stable of talent comprises invented representations of different types of comics from the era, though it’s easy to hang some influences on the characters’ sleeves. Cassie (Ari Graynor) is the Elayne Boosler slugging it out to get just a fraction of the respect and admiration of her male peers. Edgar (Al Madrigal) draws on his Mexican heritage in the fashion of Freddie Prinze’s “Hungarican” schtick. Bill (Andrew Santino) wears George Carlin’s casual stage attire, facial hair, and cantankerous demeanor.
The desire to pull up a seat next to this type of artist has inspired a cottage industry of TV about comedy: Louie, Maron, Take My Wife, Crashing, and The Jim Gaffigan Show, to name a few. (There’s even Cuplicated, a dadaist web parody of the format.) I’m Dying Up Here places itself at the genesis of this contemporary obsession, following a tight-knit community of polyester-clad up-and-comers who scrounge for stage time, shoot the shit in deli booths, and harbor jealousies both professional and personal. It’s a winning hangout show, but it loses something every time it remembers it’s also a premium-cable drama. The chatty, chummy passages of I’m Dying Up Here sit uneasily with the sudden left turns into scenes about addiction, racism, sexual violence, and PTSD, which clumsily romanticize the notion that all humor springs from pain.
Their patter pleases the ear and the funny bone, and its conversational flow is cleverly mirrored in ambulatory camerawork that sweeps through I’m Dying Up Here’s central (and fictional) club. Lifting a technique from Boogie Nights (and picking up Alfred Molina in the process), the premiere captures the environment and the energy of Goldie’s in one clean sweep: shafts of light shooting through clouds of smoke, cackling patrons in the overstuffed booths of the main room, the spartan surroundings of the club’s basement side stage. But that sense of place is a double-edged sword. I’m Dying Up Here needs to show the comedians’ lives outside of Goldie’s, but it gets lost when it travels any further than famous all-night kvetching spot Canter’s. Out in the wilds of Los Angeles is where the comedians stray from experiences that could’ve been pulled from the experiences of the comedians in the book or the ones working on the show—sleeping in a closet in above the club, testing out material at AA meetings—and into the land of things that happen to TV characters.
The casting of the series eschews a snapshot of the scene for a panorama, with as many as 11 regulars participating in those baton-passing long takes, and that’s without counting peripheral figures like the rival club owner played by W. Earl Brown or the industry guys who congregate at Goldie’s regular poker game. It’s an awful lot to keep track of, and it unfortunately mimics the experience of reading a cultural history like I’m Dying Up Here, where some figures pop—Cassie as a woman among boys working to take her act to moodier, more personal places; RJ Cyler as Adam, the youngest of Goldie’s comics and the one most eager to forge his own path—and others simply add to the background noise. It’s the type of thing to make you think, by the time episode six rolls around, “Wasn’t Robert Forster in an episode of this?” (Yes, he was). It’s also the type of thing that, if it lasts beyond its first season, might sweep new performers in and out of its cast as some characters rocket into the stratosphere and others fail to realize their dreams.
With that sprawl comes a tendency to swing wildly from one tone to the next. Whereas the money woes of new kids in town Eddie (Michael Angarano) and Ron (Clark Duke) are translated into sitcom plots where they try to win big on Let’s Make A Deal or reduce the price tag of a double date by taking a restaurant’s hot-wings challenge, similar obstacles for long-hair Sully (Stephen Guarino) are treated with kitchen-sink realism. In I’m Dying Up Here’s attempts to reflect a diversity of experiences within the pursuit of creative satisfaction, it sometimes feels like everyone is working at the same club that’s located in parallel universes. There’s further Crisis On Infinite Earths mindfuckery awaiting anyone who thinks too much about Leo playing a character inspired by Mitzi Shore in a world where The Comedy Store still exists, and competes for customers and talent with Goldie’s.
What’s most frustrating about the show’s stabs at generating tension through dark backstories or traumatic encounters or hamfisted stabs at social commentary is that you can get all of those things from the relationship between Goldie and the comics. I’m Dying Up Here is a classic tale of management versus labor. Goldie has her reasons for running her shop the way she does, but she’s exploiting her stable of performers, some of whom resort to petty theft (or worse: a day job) just to scrape by. There’s organic conflict there, and it’s one of the few things that bands the comics together despite their differences. It also gives Leo the complex task of playing a character whose aims are noble, whose ambitions are inspiring, and whose business practices are plainly reprehensible. But as long as it insists on making its characters perform the greatest hits of mediocre cable dramas, I’m Dying Up Here is just going to be Vinyl for the stand-up set.
Reviews by Jesse Hassenger will run weekly.