'Dave': TV Review

Early episodes lead with humor, later episodes hint at more depth.
3/4/2020

Penis jokes abound as FXX gives Dave Burd's Lil Dicky alter ego the half-hour comedy series treatment.

Dave Burd, the main character and creator of Dave, spends a lot of FXX's comedy justifying the name and identity of his YouTube-rapping alter ego Lil Dicky.

Sure, "Lil Dicky" is a reference to Dave's allegedly diminutive penis, the eponymous star of Lil Dicky's viral hit "My Dick Sucks," but there's more to it than that, Dave periodically insists.

In one early episode, Dave announces, "It's actually a super-intellectual commentary on hyper-masculinity."

He's correct, and the same is true of FXX's Dave. Well, not the "super-intellectual" part, but I'd maybe go so far as to say "smarter than you might expect." The problem is that both Lil Dicky and Dave lean so heavily into the puerile, with only hit-and-miss comic results, that I'm not going to blame anybody unable to get as far as the fifth episode, which serves as an intended recontextualizing of the themes of the entire show and actually succeeds on that level.

Honestly, I'm not going to blame anybody who checks out on Dave within the opening three minutes, as Burd and co-creator Jeff Schaffer (Curb Your Enthusiasm) engage in a direct assault against the casually interested. Dave is at a doctor and he gives a long monologue about his schlong and its tragic origin story culminating in the pronouncement, "My dick is made of balls." On top of the promotional art featuring Burd emerging from the fly of a pair of boxer briefs, this initial scene is almost a confirmation of your lowest expectations for the character and the show.

It also isn't an unrepresentative scene. The vaguely semi-autobiographical sitcom picks up with Dave (Burd) in the earliest stages of his hip-hop career. He has that one viral single, but he's never even gotten onstage as Lil Dicky, though he's plotting out his career with the help of his bar mitzvah money, plus way-too-attractive-for-him girlfriend Ally (Taylor Misiak), a kindergarten teacher, and friends Elz (Travis Bennett), a sound engineer, and Mike (Andrew Santino), a day trader. Their circle includes GaTa (GaTa), whom Dave meets in the pilot and who becomes a glorified and then official hype man, and Emma (Christine Ko), a cast addition in the second episode without a clear purpose other than occasional sarcasm.

The joke, such as this feels like a joke worth making in 2020, is that Dave is a vaguely morose, middle-class Jew from suburban Philly, and nobody takes him seriously as a rapper. But fortunately, he takes himself seriously enough for an entire posse, and when the light goes on in the booth, it turns out Lil Dicky is possessed of some moderate rapping skill. Sometimes the actual rapping is front-and-center on Dave, as his career gradually elevates from playing a memorial service for one of Ally's students — yes, the show likes to go dark — to the potential for more lucrative gigs. But sometimes the show is more about the bluster of what the Lil Dicky brand represents versus the reality of Dave Burd.

"Dave Burd takes your feelings into account at every moment," Dave tells Ally. "Lil Dicky could never do that!"

Occasionally Dave is funny in the moment, whether it's Burd's laconic approach to the music world or the distinct oddness of his relationships with his friends, especially Mike, with whom he shares baths for reasons best left unexplained. Sometimes Dave is cumulatively funny, like the capping punchline to a third episode that tells you way, way, way more about his masturbatory preferences that you probably needed to know and definitely expands the list of sex acts addressed on cable TV by two or three.

Most often, though, Dave feels like, of all things, a parody of FX's Atlanta and its absurdist take on authenticity, the organic evolution of hip-hop and the genre's ability to highlight and validate unheard voices, something Atlanta already does exceptionally. Whether that vein is intentional or unintentional, it's only limitedly amusing, and I occasionally found myself doubting its necessity and certainly the necessity of episodes running as long as 31 minutes.

The fifth episode, written by Saladin Patterson and directed by Tony Yacenda, turns the entire show on its head with an unlikely focus on GaTa. It's an exploration of mental illness that turns a secondary character prone to weed-fueled non-sequiturs — basically Lakeith Stanfield's Darius, without the contextual oddities that make Darius hilarious — into a representative of all things taboo in hip-hop. The episode has a seriousness of purpose previous installments of Dave lacked and, in reframing the rest of the series through GaTa's prism, it reinforces the idea that the show actually might be a critique of hyper-masculinity — that in celebrating Dave's small penis or his peculiar sexual fetishes, in underlining the gap between an uncomfortable and withdrawn artist and his brash hip-hop persona, Dave might be attempting something progressive and meaningful. It's a thought I never would have considered previously, and since the fifth episode was the last FX sent to critics, I have no clue if it's an anomaly or a declaration of purpose.

GaTa isn't an experienced actor, but there's something so immediate and real to his performance in that fifth episode that it also points to the limitations of what the rest of the cast has been asked to do in the early going. Burd offers a hint of vulnerability in the sexually graphic third episode, and it's perhaps the only glimpse at a real person under multiple layers of personae, but otherwise he's committed to the point of near exhaustion. Misiak is much livelier, and my sense is that the show uses her to compensate for Burd's limitations, without making Ally much of a character herself. Both Bennett and Santino get laughs by saying what the audience is thinking about Lil Dicky, which isn't the same as feeling like they have enough character of their own. Some of my hope for the series relates to how well Schaffer built and deepened the ensemble on FX's The League.

So is Dave a nonstop series of dick jokes or is it a commentary on the traditional phallocentrism of hip-hop? Is it trying to make you giggle and cringe or to actual dig deeply into the kind of masculinity, not always toxic but generally exaggerated in very specific ways, the genre valorizes? The answer is, of course, that it can — and ideally should — be all of those things, but one could be forgiven for missing any higher aspirations in the first four episodes. After the fifth, I at least have curiosity.

Cast: Dave Burd, Taylor Misiak, Travis Bennett, GaTa, Christine Ko, Gina Hecht, David Paymer
Creators: Dave Burd and Jeff Schaffer
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FXX)