The underlying story of WTF With Marc Maron, the comedian’s celebrated podcast, has always been one of recovery and redemption. After a decades-long stand-up career and multiple canceled shows on the liberal talk-radio network Air America, in 2009 Maron was at his professional bottom, unsure where to turn next. It’s that emotional state that prompted him to start WTF, first recording in the Air America studios after hours, then in his garage in Los Angeles. On his show, Maron practices honest and intimate engagement, openly working through his feelings—a neurotic cocktail of rage, envy, and fear. In the beginning of the series, he talked to his fellow comedians, later including other famous personalities and even the president of the United States. WTF has become a landmark podcast in the past seven years, but its popularity hasn’t changed the fundamental core of the show: an exercise in active empathy from a person all but forced to relearn that very emotion.
Maron’s IFC series, Maron, follows an alternative version of his real-life persona as a podcast host and actor, but the show adopts the same tenants of WTF, albeit in an episodic sitcom format in which the Marc character engages in various situations that test his resolve. In its fourth season, Maron has taken a new dramatic approach by setting Marc at a new-but-familiar personal and professional low. After he blew his chance at hosting a talk show by getting addicted to Oxycontin in last season’s finale, the series picks up a year later with a still-addicted Marc living in a storage unit (he charitably calls it “an artist’s colony”), having pissed away his career. The bank took his home. He’s given up his podcast. He’s sleeping with a nurse (Rebecca Metz) who feeds his drug habit. His manager, Emily (Lucy Davis), has dumped him, and his friends Andy (Andy Kindler) and Dave (Dave Anthony) have distanced themselves from him. In short, Marc has devolved into the sad, scary mess Marc Maron once was in real life, and now he has to crawl out by going to a rehab clinic or, as Dave puts it, “a resort for people with no self-control.”
By shifting the series’ premise from a man struggling to maintain success to a man desperately trying to get it back, Maron has found a whole new energy. Although the series’ third season found its groove, it often languished in a predictable rhythm, running through familiar scenes and ideas, but the fourth season has found a necessary sense of urgency, simply by treating its protagonist’s struggles seriously. Sure, Maron clearly has fun playing a version of himself that’s gone off the rails, and the writers wring laughs from his sad desperation—like when he tries to get a filmmaker to pay him $100 to make a documentary about his situation—but the series depicts Marc’s fall from grace with a tender poignancy. The people who walk through his life look on with pity and fear, and Maron, drawing on his real-life experiences, has never been a better actor than when he’s pretending to be a frightening, pathetic addict. While the first episode of Maron’s fourth season primarily lives in Marc’s misery, it also takes time to show the humanity of friends who show up when no one else will. “You’re a talented guy with a history of overcoming a lot of shit. You can do this,” Dave tells him at one point. When Marc snidely replies that he doesn’t know how show business works, Dave tells him with rare sincerity that he’s not talking about his career, but his actual life.
From a creative standpoint, Maron is the best it’s been since the middle of its second season, aided by wonderful onscreen and behind-the-scenes talent. Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister) provides functional direction in the first episode but gets to spread her wings in the second with some neat oneiric imagery for Marc’s first day in rehab, complete with “dreamscape, art-house, jump-cutting bullshit,” as Marc hangs a lampshade on it. Dave Anthony not only steals every scene he’s in, with his detached, sarcastic delivery, but he also pens the very funny second episode, peppering Marc’s rehab adjustment with great one-liners (Anthony’s credited episodes tend to be the best of the series). The first two episodes also feature great guest turns from Craig Anton as Chris, a less-than-admirable sobriety counselor who speaks in AA slogans and secretly records his conversations with patients for his recovery podcast, Let Go And Let Pod, and Chet Hanks as Trey, a fellow addict and wannabe rapper who treats rehab like prison. Maron effectively uses the reliable strengths it has developed during the past three years, like Marc playing off of people far different than himself but placing them in a fresh context with a new set of stakes.
Maron’s dramatic renewal mostly comes down to the series getting back to thematic fundamentals, primarily the empathy-above-all approach at the center of Maron’s work. The very best of his comedy involves reaching out to people via emotional chaos, connecting with universally negative impulses before illustrating how unproductive they are. While Marc might be prone to fits of anger and jealousy, he always realizes how destructive those feelings can be, and how they make it easy to forget that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dim. Maron doesn’t bring Marc down to a low point just for kicks but to demonstrate what happens when people forget what’s important and succumb to their worst selves. The fourth season effectively channels the raw vitality of WTF’s early days, when Maron was trying to dig his way out of a hole by embracing the world around him instead of pushing it away. “I’m gonna be okay, right?” Maron asks Dave at the clinic. “Or not,” Dave replies honestly. “But you have to try.” Maron’s entire career has been about trying, and Maron’s fourth season succeeds by placing that idea at its center.