Watching someone else climb the ladder can you leave you hungry for your own success, and many comedians want their own version of the acclaimed and admired “Louie.” Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” and Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” have all walked the path blazed by Louis C.K., but not every attempt to follow his lead has worked (see Andrew Dice Clay’s “Dice” or Rob Schneider’s “Real Rob”). For Pete Holmes, his leap to HBO with “Crashing” ends up somewhere in the middle. It’s not quite a triumph, but it’s not a failure either, finding an earnest middle-ground.
In fact, “Crashing” might be more comparable to “The Jim Gaffigan Show” or Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me” than to Louis C.K.’s phenomenal, groundbreaking series. Playing a dumber, more gullible variation of himself, if one that’s predictably less successful and assured than the show’s actual creator, Holmes eases into the role of a 32-year-old Christian suburbanite who’s actively pursuing stand-up comedy full-time, even though it doesn’t pay (in fact, between driving and required drink expenses to perform in these low-level shows, it actually sets him back). Holmes is nevertheless persistent and committed, if largely aimless, in his stand-up pursuits, but he doesn’t see the red flags in front of him. Namely, Holmes’ sympathetic, if uncaring, wife, third-grade teacher Jess (Lauren Lapkus), is afraid she’s becoming a second mother to her unambitious husband, and she needs to quickly reset her priorities. That’s when Pete meets Leif (George Basil).
Upon returning home prematurely from an aborted community center visit, Pete walks into his bedroom to discover his wife having an affair with Leif. Heartbroken, confused and distraught, Pete soon suffers the worst evening of his life. He performs an all-time terrible set, trying desperately to create a Notaro-esque life dissection that ultimately goes horribly awry. His car is totaled, and his phone, wallet and joke book are stolen. He’s stabbed in the leg. And through it all, he’s joined in the tragedy by Artie Lange, who can’t help but openly laugh at Pete’s unending misfortune. Such candid self-deprecating humor is key to the general vibe of “Crashing.”
Admittedly, my prior knowledge of Holmes was limited at best, but “Crashing” serves as a welcome introduction to the pleasant, unassuming, and even plain comedian. Though airing on HBO, “Crashing” is hardly ever defined by its vulgarity, sexuality or crudeness — although the freshman series is peppered with those elements. Instead, Holmes plays it loose and casual in a way that might warm him to those who might not enjoy the network’s more button-pushing fare. The real question will be if Holmes’ overall clean and somewhat milquetoast on-screen persona will sustain a whole series, but it works in the six episodes sent to press.
The comedy beats in “Crashing” land where you’d expect, though the series doesn’t have much in terms of dramatic stakes. Attempting to detail the clash of good manners against the zaniness of New York City life, Holmes aims to achieve some measure of introspection about this dichotomy, but lacks the specific, razor-sharp perspective to really make it shine. While Holmes’ worldview is amusing, it’s not particularly pointed or insightful. He not only lacks the edge of his comedic colleagues, but notably a distinct point of view. Thus, “Crashing” often coasts by, not playing against any broader themes or bigger ideas, which can sometimes make it feel a little aimless.
As a freelance writer in an aggressive industry, I can relate, somewhat, to Holmes’ ernest persistence to join a hard-to-enter creative field. Holmes, both the character and the creator, keep themselves grounded even when their ambitions soar above them. That’s what makes “Crashing” largely endearing and charming, even with its insistent blandness. It’s without the same wit and focus of its better distinguished peers, but its warmth does have some appeal. “Crashing” fits into the comedian’s adjusting brand, but whether it will find a sharper focus down the road is uncertain. [B-]