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Most great TV shows either start off pretty terrific or else they evolve so gradually and organically into greatness that you can’t point to any single episode as a pivot from “promising” to “fully realized.”
Last year, I told anybody who would listen that FXX’s Dave didn’t exactly start off rough, but the early episodes were plagued, intentionally or otherwise, by a distancing immaturity — and that the fifth episode, “Hype Man,” was a pivot episode. That half-hour, focused on hype man GaTa and his fight with bipolar disorder, was a declaration of grown-up purpose, ushering in a run of episodes that were as good as anything on TV in 2020.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 16 (FXX)
Cast: Dave Burd, Taylor Misiak, GaTa, Andrew Santino, Travis "Taco" Bennett, Christine Ko
Creators: Dave Burd, Jeff Schaffer
“Hype Man” is a great episode of TV, as were “Ally’s Toast” and “Jail” in particular, but the thing I’ve been musing on subsequently is whether it was less a massive leap forward and more simply a Rosetta Stone episode, one that allows you to read the episodes both after and before through its relative seriousness — as if to say, “It’s OK to approach this show as more than an onslaught of penis jokes.”
I pondered the Rosetta Stone idea a lot watching the first five episodes of the new Dave season, with the awareness that I wasn’t individually blown away by any one single episode like I was with “Hype Man.” Instead, I was collectively impressed with how well the new season maintains its creative momentum. No, Dave isn’t quite on the level of Atlanta, but some of the tonal swings that creators Dave Burd and Jeff Schaffer are taking are comparably ambitious, even if they’re frequently buried in that aforementioned onslaught of penis jokes.
The second season picks up roughly four months after where we left things. Dave/Lil Dicky (Burd) remains broken up from Ally (Taylor Misiak), though he’s only beginning to understand the impact she used to have on his creative process (and audiences will feel the same way about Misiak, whose return after a couple of episodes’ absence is cause for celebration).
See, Dave is struggling creatively, despite being comfortably ensconced in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills provided by his label. And if he isn’t able to make music, that leaves his entourage — mostly manager Mike (Andrew Santino, spiraling interestingly) and GaTa (GaTa) — at loose ends. Meanwhile, Elz (Travis “Taco” Bennett) is off on tour somewhere (but eventually returns) and Emma (Christine Ko) is … I’m honestly not completely sure what Emma is up to, though she pops up periodically. If I had to ding Dave for any one particular element, it’s that the show still doesn’t have a clue what to do with this character, even though Ko is a completely admirable piece of the ensemble whenever she’s allowed to participate.
The premiere is set (if not filmed) in Seoul, with Lil Dicky attempting to record a video with real-life Korean rapper/pop star CL for a song he hasn’t actually written to pander to a fandom of a genre he doesn’t actually listen to. It’s a very good representation of the constant tightrope that Dave is walking between the main character making jokes and the main character being the joke, a line I don’t suspect the series’ apparently huge fanbase always recognizes. Appropriation and the matter of where Lil Dicky does and doesn’t see his place in the musical and racial landscape were key components in the first season, and I think it’s something Lee Sung Jin illustrates clearly and smartly in the premiere, playing off Western misunderstandings of the global K-Pop phenomenon more than joking about the global phenomenon.
If the new season has a theme, it’s how white privilege is integral not just to Lil Dicky’s success, but to his ability to have his bro-y, semi-comic persona in the first place. The third episode, featuring the return of Dave’s friend and real-life super-producer Benny Blanco takes this to an extreme, as Dave and Benny’s work-avoiding, puerile gags escalate into weirdly graphic homosocial hijinks I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen before on basic cable. The jokes here are, on one hand, about the ridiculousness of the ways Dave and Benny find to waste time. But they’re much more about the latitude that these two Jewish kids from the suburbs might have that would be unavailable to GaTa, still torn between devotion to Dave and his own hip-hop aspirations.
Dave can be Lil Dicky because of his race and relative economic comfort — in season one he was still digging into his bar mitzvah funds to support himself — and when he turns out to be terrific on the mic, it’s a bonus. In the same way, Dave as a show can wallow in the low-brow because Burd has a YouTube/online fanbase that really wants or needs nothing more than variations on jokes about his genitals, and if the series wants to reach for shockingly sad or serious beats here and there, that’s the bonus. These new episodes are at least as comfortable with characters descending into paranoia and depression — pretty much everybody here is lying to themselves or avoiding confronting something important — as various sight gags involving sex toys.
And don’t get me wrong, as spectacular as GaTa is — he continues to be the series’ utter out-of-nowhere revelation — in an episode in which he goes on a nighttime odyssey in search of his car and a cell phone charger, it’s probably not bad for Dave if your takeaway from these early episodes is, “Man, I’d watch an entire show of GaTa’s childlike wonder at virtual reality porn.” Will audiences come away from an episode co-starring and titled after The Hollywood Reporter columnist (and all-time NBA scoring leader) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talking about Kareem’s current career as a leading commentator on racial representation in the media, or the very broad way the episode ends?
I guess what I’m saying is that Dave is a show you can watch for the jokes about misshapen penises, cystic acne and a bar mitzvah party where Dave gives some impressionable kids some very questionable (if fundamentally solid) advice, and maybe you’ll accidentally notice the musings on masculine insecurity and the hollow neediness of celebrity. I suspect that it’s the former that makes Dave popular and the latter that makes it such a surprisingly nuanced show, but I’m not sure if it matters.
Don’t let the childish marketing fool you. Or do let the childish marketing fool you. Just give Dave a try.
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