I’ve always been a little distrustful of the critical language of rejection when it comes to our current wave of ‘difficult men’. Sure, there’s no doubt that the last thing in the world we need is another story about misbehaving white males; it’s not like there’s a dearth of them. On the other hand, a good show is a good show, and there’s a part of me that bristles at quality entertainment being dismissed out of hand just because of these factors; what we are lacking is good art, and I’m not quite willing to throw what little we have out because the people it depicts are from a familiar demographic.
On the other hand, I am only human, and my dedication to let a show stand or fall on its own merits was sorely tested when I started reading about Crashing. A new HBO comedy series, you say? Starring another bland, self-involved white person chasing their stand-up dreams in the face of indifference from friends, family, and the public? With Judd Apatow overseeing the roman à clef of a quirky guy trying to make it in that wild 24-hour festival of kookiness we all know and love as New York, New York (the city so self-absorbed they named it twice)? Wake me when it’s over.
Crashing tells the story of modestly talented comedian Pete Holmes as modestly talented comedian Pete Holmes, whose wife cheats on him with a cartoon hippie, leading him on a crazy adventure of telling jokes in front of hostile audiences and trying to find a place to sleep, because I guess he doesn’t have any money even though he’s a middle-class white guy. Luckily for him, and for us, he has a lot of friends who are famous comedians (T.J. Miller, Hannibal Buress, Artie Lange, and others); he gets to sleep on their couches — hence the title — and they get to appear in front of crowds and tell jokes that don’t leave much doubt about why they are better-known than Pete Holmes.
Most episodes of Crashing follow a familiar robinsonesque pattern: Holmes books a humiliating comedy gig, where his humor is not appreciated by the audience. Another, higher-profile comic shows up and delivers a funnier set, then gets into some ridiculously debauched comic situation at which Holmes, whose primary characteristic seems to be his ability to project a sort of amiable reasonability, expresses dismay at this, and the response is inevitably mockery of his cornbread naïvety. (There is possibly a message here about the neurosis and egomania of the stand-up comic, but it is not one that needs to be reiterated by anyone with even a passing familiarity with the idiom.) Then his wife, peers, or parents show up to express befuddlement at his act, he crashes at his famous comedian friend’s apartment, and then, well, next verse, same as the first.
If this makes Crashing seem like a disaster, it shouldn’t. There are hundreds of worse shows on television; there are probably at least a dozen just on HBO. For all its timidity, there’s nothing really objectionable about the show; in fact, it’s often passable and sometimes even good. It’s just that in its determination to reflect Holmes’ persona in all its lack of glory, it neglects to consider the fact that Holmes is, well, kind of boring. He’s the comedic equivalent of Nathan Fillion, a middle-of-the-road talent whose appeal is almost entirely based on the fact that he just isn’t there enough for anyone to have a real problem with. Disliking Holmes would be like disliking legal pads: there he is, doing what he does in a perfectly serviceable way. He’s the kind of comedian you don’t mind listening to; he’s even the kind of comedian you might pay actual money to see in concert. But is he the kind of comedian you build an entire television series around? Not for my 22 minutes.
Then again, maybe I’m the one who’s turned around on the issue. Crashing seems like a complete blank to me, the sitcom equivalent of an electric pencil sharpener; its writing is the very definition of a functional product that was created by a small committee of competent but uninspiring people. And yet it’s met with a decent amount of critical success, ratings aren’t terrible, and it’s been renewed for a second season (despite the life-mirrors-art shenanigans of Lange, who like his on-screen equivalent, fell off the wagon during filming and got himself busted on coke charges). Holmes is starting to carve himself out a decent little career, and he’ll probably bring some of his friends along with him; it also gives us a chance to see the likes of Buress, Miller, and Sarah Silverman in good form, which isn’t a bad thing at all. That’s part of the problem with Crashing; it’s never great, but it’s also never openly crappy, and getting mad about it seems downright impolite.
But in the end, it just seems so…generic. Literally anyone could be plugged into the Holmes role, which isn’t great, considering that it’s actually based on Pete Holmes. The whole thing has a sort of ’90s-revival feel for it, harkening back to those days when any white male mediocrity who had spent enough time standing in front of a spotlit brick wall could get a TV deal. Back then, it was tolerable, but today, with meteoric talent coming from everywhere you look — especially amongst women, queer, and nonwhite comics — it’s harder to swallow giving a guy like Pete Holmes a TV show, or giving Judd Apatow another platform to revisit familiar terrain. Just last night, we watched Maria Bamford’s masterful new stand-up special, and while it’s not fair to compare the two, I couldn’t help but wonder: how is she struggling to get work while Holmes, who is basically a somewhat edgier Jim Gaffigan, is being rewarded with his own sitcom? Louis C.K. may have a lot to answer for, but the continued existence of shows like this may be the harshest thing to justify in the post-Louie landscape.