Invariably, it takes a couple of episodes before a show reveals itself, its quality. When dealing with a network program given its usual run, this warm-up period goes on longer. A full season for a network show is usually 22 episodes, and even debuts are usually given a run of 10-13 episodes. This is slowly changing due to streaming and better writing, but for the most part, if you are watching a network show, then you should expect to invest a good bit of time as it finds its groove.
Streaming or non-network shows such as those on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, SyFy, AMC, Showtime, and HBO among others usually give viewers only 10 episodes a season, 13 if we’re lucky. While these shows are usually longer than network and better composed (both writing and filming), there is an urgency in them. That urgency is more akin to anxiety, the fact that they have to come out strong and clear in its intent and style or else may not draw or keep viewers. Like any kind of writing or storytelling, there is the constant fear that readers, listeners, or viewers will simply quit. There are so many banal reasons for viewers to stop watching, a show must show its mettle much earlier than on traditional networks and fulfill its promise much sooner.
All of this is meant as a preface to the question of my title, ‘Is HBO’s Crashing a good show?’ We ordinary viewers (non-professional critics) have two episodes upon which to judge. I’ve watched each episode several times now and might have a less than satisfying answer–maybe. I’ve enjoyed Pete Holmes’ stand-up in the past, most recently Faces and Sounds.
Most likely, the reason I enjoy Holmes is because he stands in contrast to the gloom personas that’ve become so popular among comedians. Holmes character in Crashing is starkly dissimilar to Marc Maron in Maron, Louis CK in Louie, and Pam Adlon’s Sam Fox in Better Things. Yet, also, somehow akin with them in the desperation to make others smile.
What connects these shows isn’t just the autobiographical persona the comics create but also their deep commitment to revising what we think of when we think of comedy. That has been and continues to be the draw of those shows. Maron, Louie, and Better Things aren’t traditionally funny, they’re dark; you have to laugh to be able to take them in and that’s the point. However, all of those comedians aren’t their characters, which is born out just by watching the tone of their stand-up. Crashing is just as authentic as those shows just not bitter, grumpy, or maddened. It’s painfully earnest.
But let’s not get confused. Crashing isn’t sunshine and rainbows; it is not an uplifting show. Rather, it’s about how an affable man-child grows up through a very cynical profession. I think this is why the show doesn’t feel like it’s good, and this is why I think the show is good and deserves our attention. In a weird way, Crashing‘s first couple episodes are an example of form meeting function.
Pete in the show is a terrible comic. He lacks any kind of charisma, essentially “a gleeful dweeb,” which is a shtick placing him in orbit more with Mike Birbiglia than John Mulaney. The superficial plot of the show is Pete’s separation and divorce sending him into a spiral of couch surfing with comedian friends until he can right himself. The design of the show is more than just cameo after comedy cameo. Pete slingshots from one seasoned comedian to the next in a satisfyingly organic manner while learning about the business on the fly. The premise allows us to watch Pete confront an abrasive (though nearly always fundamentally kind) world he so desperately wants to be a part of but appears so foreign and distant. Crashing is a kind of stand-up Bildungsroman.
There is an art to looking like you’re bombing on stage, and Holmes has mastered it. But even when he bombs, we can see the glimmer of talent in Pete. In the first episode, while doing an open mic night, Pete strains through some subpar jokes before finding a bit about employee discounts at dollar stores. It’s funny. The audience laughs, and Pete says “There you are” having found that moment of comedy. It fades away almost immediately, but we now see what Pete’s really going after.
In fact, as viewers we cringe watching him bomb but then find ourselves laughing, both genuinely and as a defense. We don’t just see Pete but we understand what he’s trying to do. It’s unique to see and feel the process of humor, its nuances, and ebb and flow.
Is HBO’s Crashing a good show? Yeah, it could be. With two episodes down and the parameters established, March will see four episodes roll out of the eight making up the series. We’ll know one way or the other by month’s end, but I think it Crashing is a quality comedy.
So long as there is an unrelenting parade of doctor, police, singing, and dating shows spammed across America, I’ll gladly watch ‘another’ comedy show about comedy.