One of the most glaring issues with “Crashing” Season 1 was how it acknowledged Pete Holmes’ unique background — that he’s a relatively clean comic thanks to his religious upbringing — without ever doing anything special with it. While a perfectly enjoyable season of television that set up its basic premise a little too well, Holmes’ initial HBO offering felt like any other stand-up comic’s story. Season 2 does not. It feels like Holmes’ story, and it’s better for it — in part because it fully commits to how belief can distinguish a comedian when he or she engages with the concept.
One of the easiest ways to explain away that nagging little existential quandary, “What is the meaning of life?” is to respond with, “Laughter.” “A good time.” “Being happy.” Those are the answers people come back to, time and time again, to the totally insignificant and definitely not nightmare-inducing question you, dear readers, probably don’t even think about.
To be clear, no one’s saying laughter is the wrong answer. But it can feel a little too simple coming from anyone, and whenever a comedian tackles the question, it’s as if we already know his inevitable conclusion. After all, who bases their lives around laughter more than stand-up comics? So in a show like “Crashing,” where its creator, star, and lead character is Pete Holmes — a person so smiley his face is soft and wide enough to project twice the joy of a typical human grin — there’s almost no need to ask the question.
Up until Season 2, there was even less motivation; Holmes’ character on the show (just like his real-life alter ego) was a faithful Christian and former evangelical. He lived his life by God’s word, so making people laugh was just a bonus — a way to serve God. But in the new season of Holmes’ semi-autobiographical HBO comedy, Pete’s character has a crisis of faith when he’s forced to confront the meaning of life from a new perspective, and, as a result, his answer — as well as the season providing it — may surprise you.
Opening with Pete living in the garage of the man who slept with his wife, “Crashing” Season 2 quickly re-establishes the world set up in Season 1 before smashing its framework to smithereens. Pete is still performing at The Boston, a comedy club in Manhattan where he earns his five-minute sets by handing out 2-for-1 flyers during the day. To cover expenses, he also works part-time at a Cold Stone Creamery, his positive attitude being the only thing that keeps him from showing the slightest embarrassment for being a 30ish man wearing a visor indoors.
But that positivity takes a beating one night at a comedy club. In the season premiere, “The Atheist,” a special guest (who will remain unnamed) poses that Pete’s belief system is severely flawed; that you can’t will yourself to believe in things you don’t have evidence for; that certainty in faith is an impossibility. It’s enough to send the lifelong churchgoer spinning, and though there’s requisite (i.e. predictable) overindulgences in drinking and debauchery, the effect on Pete cannot be worked through in one crazy night.
Pete wrestles with the question throughout Season 2, and his journeys are a mixed bag of familiar arcs and fresh material. But even when “Crashing” is at its most conventional — relying on decent-to-good stand-up routines to fill each half-hour or pushing a love story that’s a little too desperately clung to — it’s well-told. Each episode has a strong through-line and the overall arc built through seven of the eight total episodes is a curve worthy of Babe Ruth (a reference Pete aptly does not get in the series).
It’s also more efficient with its guest stars. Artie Lange snags a memorable episode later in the season, Bill Burr is given a sneakily effectual contextualization without sacrificing any of his blunt hilarity, and Wayne Federman puts his meta character to the best possible use. And then there’s Jamie Lee, a staff writer on the first season who’s been thrown in front of the camera for Season 2. As Ali, a stand-up comic Pete meets at his club, Lee is funny, sharp, and present. Their relationship is stretched a bit beyond credibility, but the stretch is easily forgiven when it means more from Lee.
For anyone already hooked on “Crashing,” Season 2 should keep them coming back, and new or unfamiliar viewers will find their patience through Season 1 adequately rewarded. It’s still a bit removed from must-see TV, but Holmes’ second go-round stands out instead of just standing up.
“Crashing” premieres Sunday, Jan. 14 at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.