Pete Davidson’s ‘Bupkis’ Has Jon Stewart, John Mulaney, and Plenty of Weird
Pete Davidson’s new sitcom, Bupkis, opens with a scene where his mother, Amy, played by Edie Falco, walks in on him while he’s masturbating to VR porn. That episode closes with him physically helping an old friend of the family, played by Brad Garrett, have sex with a prostitute after Garrett’s hip gives out mid-thrust.
You can read the explicit content of the series premiere in one of two ways. In one, Davidson and his collaborators — he co-created the show with Judah Miller and Dave Sirus, both of whom worked on his film The King of Staten Island — are trying to give his target demographic exactly what they want, or at least expect, while intentionally scaring off everyone else. In the other, they are all but daring viewers who are on the fence to keep watching, hoping they’ll be surprised when later episodes aren’t quite so aggressively in their face.
Either would be on-brand for Davidson, who is more specifically playing himself than he was in the more loosely autobiographical King. Bupkis wavers back and forth between broad, juvenile antics, and a more thoughtful deconstruction of Davidson’s life and onscreen persona, as if both the real and fictional Petes are struggling to figure out what kind of performer, and what kind of man, they ultimately want to be. Stylistically, it’s very much in the vein of similar memoir dramedies like Louie, Better Things, Master of None, or, most recently, Dave (which also had an off-putting first episode before improving rapidly), though the level of execution isn’t nearly as high. And like those shows, the appeal still rests in large part on how much you like the star, and how much you know about the completely non-fictionalized versions of themselves(*).
(*) Louie, of course, aired its entire run before Louis C.K. was outed as a serial sexual harasser and reinvented himself as an aggrieved victim of cancel culture. That show — which inspired so many others — would surely play differently now if you could find it streaming anywhere. Just remember that even works of art that seem confessional can leave out a whole lot.
The Bupkis version of Davidson lives in Amy’s basement, but it’s the nicest room of the house, and he also brags that he paid off her mortgage. His younger sister Casey (Oona Roche) is studying to be a physician’s assistant and is perpetually annoyed by how much attention Pete gets from both the family and the world at large. Joe Pesci, in his first acting role since The Irishman(*), plays Pete’s grandfather Joe, who, in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, is trying to help Pete become a responsible grown-up before it’s too late. “You’re unhappy because all you do is try to make yourself happy,” Joe tells Pete. “You should try to make somebody else happy once in a while.”
The eight-episode season is packed with Davidson’s famous friends and/or fellow comedians, some playing themselves (Pete does a benefit with Jon Stewart, and keeps having surprising encounters with Ray Romano), some in character like Falco and Pesci (Charlie Day plays Pete’s unconventional therapist). It’s a show very aware of Davidson’s legend on-screen: When a hostess tries to kick Amy out of a restaurant, she brags, “Marisa Tomei played me in the movie!” But also off: Pete’s reckless uncle Tommy, played by Bobby Cannavale, tells him, “Every guy who has a family is fucking fantasizing about having your life. It’s why we hate you.” He also has a crew of sycophantic but troublemaking buddies who enjoy swimming in his wake, plus Nikki (Chase Sui Wonders, Davidson’s off-screen girlfriend), who he alternately treats as a confidante and a girlfriend, confusing and frustrating both of them.
(*) This is also Pesci’s first regular TV role since 1985’s short-lived detective comedy Half-Nelson. If you have not seen that show’s opening credits during the many times the clip has gone viral over the past few years, I implore you to watch them as soon as possible.
The series follows its graphic opening episode with a much more introspective one, told largely in flashback at a wedding the Davidson family attends in late September 2001, only a few weeks after Pete and Casey’s fireman dad, Scott, died in the World Trade Center collapse. There’s still comedy in there — including the young Pete sneaking a look at Uncle Tommy’s penis when they’re at adjacent urinals — but mostly it’s trying to unpack all the messy, traumatic emotions Pete was wrestling with at the time. Later episodes toggle back and forth between broad hijinks (Pete’s crew goes to Miami and somehow winds up living out a Fast and the Furious-style car chase) and quiet self-examination (Pete grapples with extreme loneliness while filming a movie in Canada over Christmas), and sometimes struggle to squeeze both into the same half-hour.
The seventh episode, for instance, finds Pete preparing to go to rehab after realizing what a mess he’s made of his own life, and features a frank conversation with John Mulaney that plays as a fascinating companion to Mulaney’s new Netflix special. On the whole, that one’s as vulnerable as Davidson has let himself appear on-screen; he’s not an actor of the caliber of Falco or Pesci (both of whom are excellent in relatively small roles), but he’s effective at showing off this more damaged side of himself. And then at the end, he sells it all out for the sake of a joke about how poorly Pete treats his beleaguered assistant Evan (Philip Ettinger).
The tonal back and forth is interesting, but also frustrating in a way that was rarely apparent on something like Atlanta, which also tried to keep viewers on their toes about what to expect each time out. This feels more uncertain, as if Davidson and the others aren’t sure how much they want to reveal of his inner self, and/or how much they think his most hardcore fans will want to watch that without some more on-brand comedy mixed in.
Ultimately, shows like this are a vibe as much as anything else. I have rarely vibed with Pete Davidson in the past, and the first episode of Bupkis seemed to confirm all my worst suspicions. What follows is wildly uneven and at times downright annoying, but it’s also a lot more ambitious and interesting than I was expecting, to the point where I’m curious which creative direction a second season might lean.
The first season of Bupkis is now streaming on Peacock. I’ve seen all eight episodes.
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