This post contains spoilers for the entire first season of FXX’s Dave, which aired its finale last night. (All episodes are now streaming on Hulu.)
Late in the first-season finale of Dave, the show’s title character — an aspiring rapper who performs under the name Lil Dicky, just as star/co-creator Dave Burd does more successfully in real life — gets a big break with a radio guest spot on The Breakfast Club. Host Charlamagne tha God takes an instant dislike to our hero, particularly for his insistence on introducing himself to everyone with his real name rather than his rap name. Dave hems and haws and tries to explain to Charlamagne and co-host Angela Yee that he thinks of himself as Dave, but also that Lil Dicky isn’t meant to be a parody, and soon he’s flailing as both accuse him of cultural appropriation.
The scene is the narrative climax of Dave Season One, since it gives Dave the big stage he has always insisted he deserves. But it’s also the thematic climax for a show whose brief theme song alternates between Burd rapping, “Hi, I’m Dave” with “I’m Lil Dicky,” while a confused listener interjects, “Who’s Dave?” Is Lil Dicky just a put-on, or is he meant to be the truest version of Dave? And if Lil Dicky’s songs are so often deliberately ridiculous, why does Dave get offended whenever people talk about how funny he is?
I have to admit to knowing very little of either Lil Dicky or Dave Burd prior to Dave‘s premiere earlier this spring. (I had seen the “Freaky Friday” video with Chris Brown, and that was about it.) The first two episodes, filled with Dave making a fool of himself(*) and/or talking at great length about his deformed male anatomy, made me write the show off as decidedly Not For Me, and I moved on. Then a friend encouraged me to jump ahead to the fifth episode, “Hype Man,” a purely dramatic spotlight on Dave’s titular friend GaTa (played by Burd’s actual hype man, whose real name is Davionte Ganter). As GaTa’s erratic behavior in earlier episodes was explained as symptoms of his struggle with bipolar disorder, it felt like Dave as a whole was being similarly recontextualized.
(*) Burd co-created the series with Jeff Schaffer, who between The League and his work producing the later seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm has plenty of experience of writing people who can’t help putting their feet in their mouths.
Here was an episode smart and empathetic and poignant enough to merit comparisons with Atlanta, for reasons beyond both shows taking place in the rap world and being part of the FX brand. And it suggested that those early installments were keenly aware of their own scatological awkwardness. The episodes in between weren’t as serious as “Hype Man,” which had concluded with Dave encouraging GaTa to embrace his condition as part of his identity, rather than try to hide it. But seeing them in the aftermath of that one made the entire world of the show seem more human and welcoming — and I laughed a lot at the third one, “Hypospadias,” about the extreme measures Dave takes to avoid letting girlfriend Ally (Taylor Misiak) see his penis in all its mangled glory.
Later episodes deftly balance character work with dick jokes, including spotlights on Ally, who begins to feel left behind by Dave’s career ambitions, and on Dave’s friend and producer Elz (Travis “Taco” Bennett). And as the fictional Dave’s celebrity begins to approach that of the real Dave Burd — one episode features Dave hanging around with, among others, Justin Bieber, Benny Blanco, Marshmello, and Kourtney Kardashian (maybe the most relaxed and human she’s ever seemed on TV) — the show is also smart enough to ask whether we should be rooting for him to succeed, or yelling at him for turning into an entitled ass. The show makes Dave’s sidekicks even more human and complicated than him — the highlight of Ally’s episode is the beautiful, emotionally fraught toast she delivers at her sister’s wedding, where she manages to turn their lifelong rivalry into a positive thing — and in the process becomes something more compelling and richer than if we were just meant to cheer him on.
Though even as things grow more serious, there’s still plenty of room for toilet humor — literal, in the case of Dave suffering an on-camera bout of diarrhea while hiking with Ally, or metaphorical, like Dave euthanizing an injured rabbit with his car. (And, better, being so unfazed by the act that the scene immediately cuts to him loudly singing along to “Hook” by Blues Traveler as the drive continues.) If anything, those kinds of jokes play even better once it’s clear the entire show isn’t meant to be a cartoon.
The season finale, “Jail,” manages to be all things Dave at once: thoughtful yet crude, self-parodying and inspiring, a deservedly skeptical examination of Dave’s success but also a justification for it.
It opens with a Lil Dicky rap video — about him going to prison for indecent exposure after taking his balls out during a concert — that runs over nine minutes, and is only that brief because Dave’s horrified partners at the record label turn it off to avoid hearing more jokes about prison rape. On the one hand, it’s Burd (who wrote the finale, which was directed by Tony Yacenda) giving himself a vote of confidence as both writer and rapper that this will be interesting and funny enough to sustain such a big chunk of uninterrupted time. On the other, it is meant to be a very bad look for the fictional Dave, who’s oblivious to why the whole thing seems so offensive and hacky. “I lure people in with absurdity through the lens of a privileged perspective,” he argues, though the sentiment seems to apply more to the real version than his TV counterpart, who whines that taking a meeting with a group of people who are paying him $250,000 is “the real fucking jail.”
This is a very narrow tightrope for the show to walk with Dave the character when he’s at his most myopic. Yet “Jail” stays on balance, in part because the last few episodes have already shown Dave blindly hurting Ally, Elz, and roommate/manager Mike (Andrew Santino). It all builds up to that Breakfast Club appearance, where Dave seems on the verge of drowning in Charlamagne and Angela’s deserved contempt for him, only for GaTa to step in and defend him as a good, genuine guy and not the calculating appropriator the radio hosts see. It’s a great payoff to the season-long building of their friendship, as well as the latest sign that Dave’s confidantes know him better than he knows himself. Dave had been planning to play the prison rap on the radio as an end run around the label, but being rescued by GaTa forces him to very quickly reconsider what he’s doing and who he’s in danger of becoming. Instead, he offers to freestyle live on air, and is so confident and clever that even his hosts are won over. As time on the season runs out, he declares, “My name is…,” then pauses long enough that an enthusiastic Charlamagne joins in, asking, “What’s your name?”
Cut to the Dave title, followed by Burd’s writing credit. This seems to answer all of Charlamagne’s questions about who our hero really is and what we should call him. Yet the final sequence is a triumph for the two Daves and for Lil Dicky all at the same time — and a fitting conclusion to a show whose promise really snuck up on me.