Leave it to the guy who hosts a podcast full of personal “overshares” called “You Made It Weird” to make a show that tackles divorce, betrayal, and hitting rock bottom in a not-too-sweet, welcoming manner that captures its star’s vibe completely: In the premiere of HBO’s “Crashing” (Feb. 19), a fictionalized version of creator and star Pete Holmes in emotional turmoil after the wannabe comic finds his wife cheating on him — and returns to the New York City comedy scene for support and a couch to crash on.
The show manages to tackle some pretty dark circumstances in a way that is at once sad, unusually light, and ultimately realistic — at least, in terms of how our fictional Holmes would handle them. Inspired by his earlier years as a still-struggling performer and more devout person — both comic and character originally intended to become a Christian youth pastor — “Crashing” sets itself apart from the pack of comedy auteur shows by putting forth a main character who is unabashedly innocent.
It’s fitting that the show follows “Girls” in HBO’s Sunday lineup, beyond the fact that Judd Apatow executive-produces both series: Lena Dunham’s “Girls” character, Hannah, goes hand-in-hand with Holmes as a naive young person attempting to take on the world with arguably unrealistic hopes and dreams.
“Crashing” also puts itself in direct juxtaposition to its predecessor, when it comes to the origin and drive of its leads. Though both optimists to some degree, Hannah Horvath’s naivety tends to be one of self-centered oblivion as she tries to build a life for the first time. Holmes, however, operates from a deep purity — his life was already built, and now has come, well, crashing down. What results is a character whose naivety doesn’t induce anger or frustration as we watch him hope, dream, and stumble — something it would be hard to say about Dunham’s ingénue.
As “Better Things” and the smash hit “Atlanta” followed in “Louie’s” footsteps over on FX, putting their own mark and identity on the product, we see a proliferating ecosystem in development here: Though a straight-across parallel show — “Girls” for “Boys” — would of course be insufferable, if not merely a standup-comic “Entourage” — so it’s appealing to see such a goofy, gentle person taking center stage.
The mandate is to provide a window on the standup world, a daunting prospect for those familiar with its undertow, but you can immediately see the cocktail-conversation appeal of being invited into such an insular world by the front door: Much as “True Detective” inspired a thousand couch-potato film critics with its first-season technical prowess, the self-appointed experts among comedy fandom will find this particular kind of peek inside — an Average Joe, learning the ropes and running with the big dogs, perhaps even discovering his innate potential for stardom — addictive and inspiring.
Holmes’ character is endearing to the point that it outweighs the inherent ugliness of a sad man’s quasi-homelessness and decision to pour his heart out to the 11-year-old children he finds himself riding the subway with. Of course, the truth of that ugliness is still there. The show is called “Crashing,” after all, and he still has far to fall.
If there’s anything that feels off, it’s seeing inklings of a tiring cycle in which Bambi-esque Pete is the butt of other comics’ jokes, navigating a notoriously cliquey and rough-edged fraternity of comics who like to spar with each other. Pete struggles to keep his chin up when comedy somebodies like Artie Lange give him a hard time for bombing onstage, and we’re reminded Pete has a long way to go in his transformation into career comic — but also that he’s probably going to have the rounded edges of his until-now well-preserved soul chipped away by this new, harsh environment.
That transformation seems foreshadowed by Greer Barnes’ line of advice to Holmes early in the show: “Welcome to the way, boy. Stay low, keep firing.” It is good to know what you are watching, and to be warned up-front that the cheeriness won’t last… But the show has yet to tell us whether it’s going to be as painful to watch as it may be — and presumably has been, for generations of comics — to live through.
But it would be just as useful for Pete to apply that strategy to his civilian life as well. Here he is, in the foxhole of life for what seems to be the first time — Artie Lange calls out Pete’s issues clearly: “Babe in the woods, man. You gotta toughen up here” — and so while it’s a stretch to call him a comedy-scene Walter White, Holmes gives markedly more Kimmy Schmidt vibes than Hannah Horvath — and depicting his initiation into the comedy scene, while hopefully avoiding its inherent cynicism, is this show’s highest and most distinct goal.
“Crashing” is not so much about a comic’s struggle to build a career, but a guy-who-happens-to-be-a-comic’s struggle to rebuild a life. And we’re left hoping — but unsure — that he’ll somehow survive.
“Crashing” airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.