Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the final episode of “Crashing.”
Pete Holmes — we’re talking here about the slightly lummoxy, less successful version of himself the comedian plays on the HBO series “Crashing” — just wanted a seat at the table. Literally. One of the running gags in “Crashing” was Pete’s passive-aggressive campaign to be allowed to sit at the hallowed “comedian’s table” at the Comedy Cellar.
Pete got his seat, finally, near the end of the show’s Season 3 finale on Sunday, in a crescendoing happy ending that saw him get the girl, too. (Get her back, that is — he was last seen skipping down Sixth Avenue in an apparent reunion with his former girlfriend and true love, Ali, played by Jamie Lee.) But at virtually the same moment, the actual Holmes had the seat pulled out from under him: He tweeted on Friday to confirm that HBO had canceled his show.
When “Crashing” premiered in 2017, created by Holmes and sporting Judd Apatow as an executive producer and writer, three seasons might have seemed generous. Here was another show featuring a stand-up comedian’s lightly fictionalized alter ego. Here was another show about a white male underdog trying to overcome his awkwardness.
The one obviously unusual thing about the series — that the character, like Holmes, was a Christian determined to focus on reasonably clean, uplifting humor — wasn’t going to increase its cachet in the precincts of prestige-cable and streaming comedy.
And for two seasons, while the show displayed sharp writing and a gallery of appealing cameos by well-known comics (and while it drew decent ratings for an HBO half-hour), it didn’t feel essential. It got its laughs from situations that seemed designed not to push any buttons: Pete’s conscience-free squatting on other comedians’ couches; his blossoming friendship with Leif, the wily hippie who cuckolded him (an inspired character played with sublime disingenuousness by George Basil); the dispiriting scramble for a few minutes onstage at the Cellar.
The third season has been a different and more interesting animal, however. Perhaps Holmes and Apatow wanted to edge into a conversation dominated by more of-the-moment comedies like “Atlanta” and their HBO Sunday-night partner, “High Maintenance.”
In any case, what had essentially been a remaking-yourself-in-the-big-city sitcom — “Mary Tyler Moore” with language and nudity — took on new dimensions. The conflicts between Pete’s religious convictions and his choices in life and work were dealt with more directly, as he joined a Christian stand-up tour and introduced an uninhibited new girlfriend to his parents.
More significantly, the show began to explore the implications of Pete’s maleness and whiteness in the current cultural climate — perhaps not with great depth, but with a nuance and a resistance to tidy lessons that some hipper productions could emulate.
In the season premiere, Pete, with his usual generosity and a swelled head from his increasing success, offers to help out a fledgling African-American comedian (Jaboukie Young-White). The result was predictable — the rookie that Pete saw as a mentee was quickly accepted into the fraternity that still wouldn’t acknowledge Pete — but Pete’s frustration, and the younger man’s indifference to it, were less expected.
And in an episode that finally did get talked about, Pete did a show with a headliner (played by Dov Davidoff) who kept alive the worst traditions of misogyny and sexual badgering. The pig got his comeuppance, onstage and off, but the show didn’t pat itself on the back for giving it to him. He was equal parts obliviousness and desperation, and if sympathy wasn’t called for, there was room for understanding.
The most daring move, though, was the new girlfriend, who was a lanky, striking, high-strung and highly sexual ball of fire played with utter conviction by Madeline Wise. Here was another show where the schlub gets the woman who’s out of his league, but, again, “Crashing” took it head-on. Pete really was out of his league, emotionally at least, and when the relationship flamed out, he slunk away from the whole clammy, depressing mess.
HBO hasn’t commented on its reasons for canceling “Crashing,” which recently has been getting double the audience of the much buzzier “High Maintenance.” (Maybe the network wants a more closely aligned lead-in.) But after Pete’s triumphs in the finale, the show may be ending at the right time. The clown’s tears are never as funny when he’s on top.
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