Pete Holmes has the right story for a Louie-esque semi-autobiographical sitcom. Raised in an evangelical Christian household, his was a righteous path toward the pulpit. He married his college sweetheart at 22; at 28, they were divorced. In between, Holmes found that he preferred audiences to congregations, and launched a career in stand-up. But he still possessed the personality and openness of someone fit to lead Bible study, characteristics he pinned down in the 2013 stand-up special, Nice Try, The Devil.
Holmes’ sunny disposition will distinguish his new HBO series, Crashing, from others in the crowded post-Louie field. (If anything, it makes the Judd Apatow-produced half hour a closer relative to the late Jim Gaffigan Show.) But the “comic down on his luck” content of Crashing is a tough ask when Holmes insists on being so gosh-darn likable. It’s not a nice guy put-on like Paul Rust juggles so well in a different Apatow project, Love. Sure, the Pete Holmes of Crashing has his flaws: He’s too fixated on writing jokes and too shortsighted to notice the chasm growing between him and his wife, Jess (Lauren Lapkus). But he’s written as a good guy, and Holmes makes you believe that the fictionalized Pete is a good guy.
And if Crashing’s sense of humor was just a few shades darker, its first three episodes would hit much harder. The big teddy bear of a man is treated like the whole world’s punching bag, but Crashing isn’t a black comedy Book Of Job delivering just deserts—like Review, for instance, or anything involving Arrested Development’s own GOB. Crashing is more of a straightforward Book Of Job story, about a man enduring concurrent tests of multiple faiths: in his God, in himself, in the institution of marriage, in Artie Lange’s ability to stay sober. The notoriously hard partier is Pete’s first lifeline during his separation from Jess (even though they don’t know one another), and Lange’s couch is the first in a network of New York furnishings on which Pete sleeps while he starts to get his shit together. Established names in the game, they give Pete a look at potential futures: T.J. Miller’s gadget-festooned bachelor pad is as much of an “always on” situation as the Silicon Valley star, while Sarah Silverman’s brownstone comes with live-in freeloaders (Steve Agee and David Juskow) who she warns Pete not to become.
The comedy-scene procedural stuff is where Crashing lands laughs at Pete’s expense. When Pete bombs in the Apatow-directed pilot, it’s a bone-deep sensation, and Holmes—whose debut album was aptly titled Impregnated With Wonder—makes an ideally guileless guide to the stand-up world’s unspoken rules. But the revolving-door treatment also robs the show of any sense of a supporting cast. As Jess, Lapkus makes a great foil for Holmes, and her offbeat sensibility prevents the character from lapsing into the anti-man-child shrew types forever haunting the Apatow-verse. But she’s not a constant presence in the show, and neither are any of Pete’s new comedy friends, and that puts a lot of the burden on Holmes’ shoulders. He’s up for the challenge, and definitely comfortable in playing the version of himself he presents in his act, but the knock-down, pop-up rhythms of Crashing can grow wearying when the only character we’re following is the one going through them.
But they also make the few moments of triumph so, so satisfying. The expressiveness that aids Holmes onstage deserves the celebratory montage that accompanies Pete’s first break, and a big part of Pete’s personal journey (and Crashing’s evolution) involves harnessing that enthusiasm. He’s not Lange, grumbling about sexcapades while a cigarette dangles from his mouth. He’s not Silverman, her sweet delivery masking venomous material. He isn’t Miller, though he does a good impression of him. He’s a performer suited to the type of show Crashing starts to be in its fourth episode, when the narrative gains some momentum and Pete gains some awareness about his vulnerabilities. He and Jess may have rushed things, but Crashing does not.
Reviews by Andrea Reiher will run weekly.