Crashing S01E01 Review: 'Artie Lange' [Series Premiere]
Every time a show like Crashing comes along, it's inevitable that we have to discuss the place of the black comedy about a miserable up-and-coming stand-up comic in the television landscape. This is a format that's been around for a long time, and that seemingly gets reinvented and reinvigorated every few years.
First it was Seinfeld, who made it okay for a comedian to portray his own profession instead of being thrust into some bizarre situation like the stand-ups that had gotten sitcoms before him. Then The Larry Sanders Show brought this idea to cable and perfectly spoofed late night comedy. Curb Your Enthusiasm explored life after fame in comedy, and more recently Louie changed the game once again for comedians by making it okay not only for comedians to show the darker side of themselves, the sad, tragic side that leads them to a life of trying to make other people laugh, but also expanding the boundaries of what a half hour TV comedy can be.
That's what comedians have been chasing for the better part of a decade now, trying to take what Louis C.K. did on FX to the next level. From there, we've gotten shows like Atlanta and Master of None, which are a combination of the narrative-driven sitcoms of days past and the sandbox-like openness of what FX allowed with Louie, and even post-post-modern shows like Baskets which take the blackness and melancholy of Louie to an extreme.
And then there's a show like Crashing, which, based on just its first episode, "Artie Lange", feels like it falls somewhere in the cookie-cutter area in between. While the first episode is good, funny, and entertaining, it left me asking myself why it needed to exist. It's basically exactly what Louie was early on before C.K. got weird with it, it he story of the struggling comedian that we've seen a dozen times before, and it doesn't really bring anything new to the table, unless you're a really big fan of creator/star Pete Holmes' happy-go-lucky demeanor.
I'm a fan of Pete's. I listen to his podcast regularly, I love him when he goes on Conan and watched all of his unfortunately short-lived late night show. Yet the best thing that I could muster to think of while watching this episode was platitudes for the creator. "Good for Pete," I thought. This comedian that I like has a decent show on HBO. That's something that's incredibly hard to accomplish, even with someone like Judd Apatow (who directed the episode) backing you. The episode had a couple of good laughs, it gave supporting rules to people I always like to see more of like Artie Lange (playing himself) and Lauren Lapkus (as Pete's soon-to-be ex-wife), but other than feeling good for this man I've never met, what reason do I have to devote half an hour of my limited TV viewing time to something that makes almost no effort to being original?
From what I surmise, the hook of this show is that Pete isn't Louis C.K. because he's a good guy. Because he'd rather take one on the chin from the hairy naked Greek dude he catches his wife fucking than stand up for himself, because he's shameless enough to ask a notoriously famous comedian he just met to sleep on his couch because he's having a bad day, because that nice guy attitude is bound to get him into situations that will make us cringe (like the comedian who suggests he go up on stage and talk about his wife cheating on him, knowing there's no way it'll turn out great), since this world has already demonstrated itself to be way more cruel than this cheery guy who lives in the suburbs and used to be a youth pastor.
Apatow and Holmes otherwise don't even bother trying to swing away from the tropes though. The show is very New York, right down to basically recreating the walk from the Louie intro. The episode is full of people from the stand-up scene that only comedy nerds will recognize or appreciate. Hell, it even wants you to believe that a middle-aged Pete Holmes is just starting out and that everyone else in this world is who they are in real life except for him.
And in terms of storytelling, the show is slow and methodical, systematically taking up through all the bad shit Pete is going through, making sure we feel uncomfortable with him, a strategy which could have different effects on different viewers. This first episode is all about stripping Pete of everything in his possession except for the clothes on his back, from his wife and his home to his car, to even his phone and wallet, as he gets mugged late in the episode. This show wants you to know it's starting from scratch, which can be a jarring proposition if you've heard this story before.
At the end of the line, Crashing is a perfectly serviceable sitcom for the post-modern age of shows about comedians. Its lead is charming and different enough from whom we're used to seeing in these rules, and the addition of Artie Lange is an intriguing-enough twist on the format. Plus I like Pete Holmes enough to keep watching it, at least for now. But that's me, speaking as a Pete Holmes fan, and as a fan of comedy. How this will work as an HBO sitcom airing after the last season of Girls in the dead of winter, however, remains to be seen.
"Artie Lange", the first episode of Crashing, gets 7 Parthenon tattoos out of 10.