HBO’s Crashing comes back this month with season two of the Pete Holmes pseudo-biography about a struggling comedian trying to make it in NYC. Last season we saw Pete confronted with the fallout of his wife’s infidelity and their inevitable divorce. This season it’s more of the same, picking up shortly after we left him in season one’s finale, where he was left for good by his wife at their friend’s baptism. Now, Pete has found himself in the unenviable position of crashing with Leif, the man who stole his wife and kicked off this new life for him.
A sometimes entertaining, sometimes frustrating trifle, Crashing rides on the likability of Holmes and his guest stars to obscure the fundamental problems of this show that keep it from being worthy of the coveted Sunday evening HBO time slots. As an episodic network series, I’d probably be more forgiving. I really love Holmes’ stand-up and respect him immensely as a thinker and interviewer, but for me, the good intentions behind much of the season’s more philosophical moments get completely castrated by its limitations. The far-reaching problem with the show is still that it’s trying to tell the real story of a 20-year-old Pete Holmes, through the body of a fictional 38-year-old Pete Holmes. And as a result, we get an incredibly naïve and un-experienced man who doesn’t seem real, and more like some social oddity worthy of studying alongside Kasper Hauser.
The opening scene this season, for example, suggests that Pete has never seen porn, or pictures of topless women before. So we’re off to the races with following a man baby around who seems to have just landed on earth. And it’s not that the series can’t be about a naïve man with little street smarts or social acuity. In fact, episode two introduces a love interest for Pete, and his inability to gauge social cues is plausibly cringe-inducing and extremely funny. But for the majority of the show, the level of Pete’s incompetence is just remarkable. It’s, of course, possible to be a stand-up and be a devout Christian, but it’s certainly unlikely, and in fact, as the real Pete Holmes grew older and evolved, so too did his beliefs on religion. A process that I’m sure took years of heartache and constant questioning, gets set up like a messy bowl of pasta in episode one, when Pete “luckily” has Penn Jillette ask to sit at his table and debate the meaning of life and atheism vs. theism.
You can see Pete going through the motions of what he believed as a young man and then acting out the pain of finally questioning it, but it’s never believable. And that’s really simply because the comedy world disavows one of their pretenses. To make it you have to lay yourself bare and always accept the ridiculousness of being sentient. There’s not a ton of room for absolutism, and it’s hard to believe a guy who has gone to the Comedy Cellar on the regular wouldn’t already have had these thoughts. The real Pete Holmes knows this, but he constantly has to pretend he’s just figuring it out for the first time as a man his age. And while he’s doing that, we lose time for a lot of what’s good about the show, namely that Pete Holmes today is a funny and endearing man whose natural awkwardness is enough to carry a show.
Because of that innate charm, I did leave open the possibility for the show to course correct at the end of last season, but it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back. For every sincere scene we get with Pete hanging with other comics, we get a few annoying ones about his past life and his agony over his ultra-Christian background. The scales are shifting slowly and there are a lot of funny moments in the process, but this season still ultimately doesn’t get to the most interesting version of Pete Holmes his fans know exists. At the end of the season, you’re still left wondering if Pete the character is secretly an asshole who hasn’t self-actualized, harboring all the typical emotions of someone trying to break into the business or just a genuine doofus who loves to make people laugh.
George Basil is thankfully back as Leif, lending a Kramer-type character to Pete’s Jerry. He delivers my favorite line of the season after giving Pete a scalp massage and whispering a sincere, “Oh there you are Peter.” Leif may be a stock character but Basil’s comic timing and delivery smooth over that fact.
Episode three introduces Pete to Bill Burr, and in most cases, people playing themselves on this show come off awkward since they’re forced to play against the version of Pete’s character that doesn’t make sense. But it seems as if Burr and Holmes really don’t know each other, and so there’s a pretty authentic bonding that occurs on screen. Bill needing a man’s man to spend time with while in town is a great set up for a softy like Holmes, Christian backstory or not. And through that arc this season we start breaking into the whole political aspect of the comedy world, which is really its most interesting element. In episode five the Lucas Brothers introduce Pete to the alternative comedy scene, giving us insight into the different paths one can take to make it.
Watching this club of people who do the same thing while reaching varying levels of success is where you get the most humanity of the show. It’s a reality that the real Pete is in a much better position to comment on now as a successful comedian. What the show is not set up for is being able to discuss addiction and how the real-life Artie Lang struggles with heroin use despite his success in the field.It’s a bit too real for a series that starts off on the wrong foot. Lang does impress this season with his handling of the material, but it’s just the wrong place for it.
I don’t think viewers will be bored by watching this season of “Crashing,” it’s a fine way to pass a half hour of time on a Sunday night. But if like me you were hoping the show would find its sweet spot this season, you’ll have to wait for season three. Having been cut from eight to six episodes isn’t a great sign that that’ll happen though, so this might be the best we get from Pete Holmes’ first foray into scripted television. I’m confident that if that’s the case he’ll be back with something more elevated and truer to his abilities and talents.
Season 1, Episode 9 (S01E09)
Crashing airs Sunday at 1030PM on HBO
Greg Brecher | Contributor