When describing the content of cutting-edge half-hours, the adjectives “clean,” “sweet” and “mildly Christian” rarely come up.
But the measured optimism and reflexive kindness of “Crashing” are among this show’s chief recommendations. The array of 30-minute programs now on TV is particularly rich and eclectic, but there is still a notable subset that wallow lazily into their characters’ neuroses, throw in awkward sex scenes that don’t have a compelling reason to exist, or stay mercilessly dour in a bid to seem “important” or “challenging.” “Crashing” may be a bit slight, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: It knows what it’s going for and more often than not, fulfills its modest ambitions in amusing and diverting ways.
Many of the building blocks of “Crashing” are very familiar, but it doesn’t fall into the traps that have snared other shows like it. It’s probably wisest to view “Crashing” as an uplifting but generally realistic palate cleanser, one that thrives on nostalgia for the scuffling, struggling lives of artists without being too deluded about the realities of that marginal, unstable lifestyle. Thanks in large part to the nimble abilities and warmth of its cast and guest stars, “Crashing” manages to display a lively and patient curiosity about failure, divorce and not having a place to live.
Like so many of his fellow stand-up comics, Pete Holmes plays a version of himself on the show, which shares a lot of elements with half-hours like “Master of None,” “Broad City,” “Girls” and “Louie” without seeming overly derivative. The word “Crashing” itself has several meanings: Sometimes — well, often — his on-stage routines bomb; it’s not uncommon for Pete and his fellow aspiring comics to crash ego-first into a wall of audience indifference. But the word also refers to the weeks Pete spends couch-surfing across New York after he is dumped by his wife in the pilot’s opening minutes.
Even though Pete seems like a decent enough guy, you can hardly blame his wife, Jessica (the excellent Lauren Lapkus), for giving up on their stifling and aggressively bland relationship. As she puts it during an argument, he wanted more of a nanny than a wife, and that’s just one aspect of Pete that makes him seem like a familiar character from Judd Apatow’s shows and films (he also serves as an executive producer here).
Nothing about Pete’s oblivious, naive behavior contradicts Jessica’s frustrated observations about his immaturity. Though Holmes does a reasonable job of portraying a man who is genuinely shocked by what has transpired in his home (he finds a man named Leif where he should definitely not be), an unemployed 32-year-old who expects his spouse to support him while he pursues a money-losing comedy career is bound to run into some major obstacles. Pete meets all of them with a bashful smile, a semi-reluctant willingness to learn, and a mumbled “I’m sorry.” (It’s almost jarring that Pete is from Boston, given how Midwestern his genial repression and instinctive politeness are.)
Artie Lange is one of the friendly if skeptical comics Pete meets on his picaresque journey through near-empty comedy clubs and apartments with varied levels of cleanliness, and Artie tells Pete he needs to “toughen up” — and he’s not wrong. Pete is launching himself into adulthood about a decade after everyone else he knows has embarked on that journey, and if there’s one wonky element in “Crashing,” it’s that Pete’s sophistication level is somewhat inconsistent. Sometimes he’s astonishingly clueless, and yet moments later, he’ll display a kind of savvy that belies a great deal of experience with life in New York City.
But that’s not a major complaint, and the first six episodes often provide delightful showcases for actors like T.J. Miller, Gina Gershon and Sarah Silverman. “Crashing” may end up being most popular among comedy nerds — I can only imagine the number of podcasts that will obsess over it — but even for those who aren’t fascinated by the world of stand-ups, the likability of the lead character and his willingness to play straight man to a variety of well-chosen guest stars is consistently engaging.
A premium cable half-hour about a comic with family issues who is going through a divorce could have been a stew of resentment, anger and resentful jokes about women (and the show is smart enough to occasionally acknowledge that Pete and his friends experience their share of dark and turbulent emotions). But there’s a lot of joy in “Crashing,” and when Pete finally gets a few chances to explore the kind of comedy he’s naturally good at, a quiet but well-earned sense of triumph pervades his little world.
It knocks him for a loop, but Pete’s divorce also frees him to contemplate ways of life and ideas he’d previously kept at bay, and the show often displays a chipper curiosity as its protagonist takes baby steps toward establishing a new life. The audience for “Crashing” will also see the evolution of Pete’s material — and the ways in which it gets stronger and funnier — as he begins to draw upon his past as a deferential, cheerful conformist who went to a Christian college and got married very young (too young, as it turns out).
Holmes’ on-screen alter ego goes through a lot of changes, but he is almost messianically devoted to comedy and he also displays a lot of loyalty to the aspirational qualities that end up setting his stand-up routines apart. Even after a mugging, Pete believes that camaraderie and loyalty can and do exist, even among broke, godless comics. More often than not, he’s right.