“I’m Dying Up Here” is a mishmash of genres so out of the ordinary the series should be anything but forgettable. A dramatic peek behind the curtain of ’70s stand-up comedians that starts with a successful comic’s seemingly inexplicable suicide? That’s a premise as out there as the very idea to blend laugh-out-loud comedy acts with deep-seated drama… and yet, here we are. After a season of mixed reviews and rough ratings, the unlikely Season 2 premiere debuts with little urgency and only a few negligible alterations. Even with a bit more prosperity, these comedians are still dying — and dying slowly.
Beginning with a flashback, creator Dave Flebotte’s second season throws in a few new characters to liven things up, but they only exacerbate the existing dynamics. Take Goldie (Melissa Leo), the club owner who may or may not have burned a competing comedy club to the ground at the end of last season. One of the challenges facing her character was repetition: A comedian would step to her, and she’d shut them down. An agent would step to her, and she’d shut them down. A club owner would step to her, and she’d burn them down. There was a lot of Melissa Leo yelling — trying to light up each scene with fire and fury for lack of a competing emotion — and that grew tiresome.
Season 2 introduces her daughter and does so in a big way: They do not get along, and while this could result in more screaming matches, at least Amanda (Stefania LaVie Owen) would be able to counter the all-powerful Goldie; this isn’t a person she can threaten by taking away stage-time or, you know, burning down her business. (Also, in case there are any incensed “I’m Dying Up Here” fans out there, yes, Royce’s club could’ve burnt down because he didn’t replace the faulty wires flagged by the safety inspector — or Teddy (W. Earl Brown) could’ve lit the match himself. But there are rumors flying in Season 2 that Goldie did it, so we’re running with that. There’s more conflict there, anyway.)
But Amanda has gone silent — literally. She won’t speak to her mother, so Leo is again left with carrying huge swaths of each episode all by her lonesome, and again, repetition starts to build. The same threats are tossed around, the same curse words shouted, and the same lack of consequence. By the end of Episode 3, it’s as if her daughter only showed up to provide a reason for Goldie to drop giant monologues littered with exposition and torment — like a ghost who’s there to reinforce what’s already been happening.
The same can be said for the season’s big guest star, Brad Garrett. As legendary comedian Roy Martin, Garrett comes to town to discuss a business opportunity with Goldie, but his most revealing scenes come when he’s paired with Eddie (Michael Angarano), the now-bearded young stand-up who worships Roy enough to write jokes for him. Yet the big takeaway about Roy is that he’s a jaded prick; a man so used to the limelight he only talks of the good old days when it still felt special to go on Carson. The rest of the comedians are shocked by this: How could such a famous and successful comedian be a dick who’s down in the dumps?
Well, maybe because he’s just like the rest of them. Though the characters are a bit nicer overall and a bit more supportive of each other, there’s still a darkness to them. Learning that they might still be that way even when their dreams come true isn’t that surprising. It’s the same lesson that was imparted with haunting power in the series premiere: Clay (Sebastian Stan) went on Carson and then killed himself. If that’s not a clue to anyone watching that money and fame aren’t enough to make for a happy life, a bummed out Brad Garrett isn’t going to do the trick either.
Perhaps most frustrating though is the lack of development with Cassie. Ari Graynor’s empowered comedian has been at the forefront of the show’s marketing campaign; some ads even isolate her entirely from the rest of the ensemble. Considering the path she was on in Season 1 — forced to decide if her gig on “Girls Are Funny, Too” was an actual step forward for female comedians or just a hollow gesture meant to make men more money than she’d ever see — there’s very little thrust to that theme in the first three episodes of 2018. Instead, she’s saddled with a personal backstory that has her homesick and dreaming about motherhood.
That arc could still develop into something meaningful, but how much longer is anyone willing to wait with a show that’s always had more potential than it can pay off? “I’m Dying Up Here” is stuck on a dead stage, trying out any material it can and failing to pursue the few parts that deserve further exploration. Between a few moving dramatic moments (Ralph, played by Erik Griffin, is underutilized), a few too many crass jokes about women (Clark Duke’s Ron, who performs on “Soul Train,” is really out of place this year), and a few too many familiar story beats, it’s time to pull the cord on this cold mic.
“I’m Dying Up Here” Season 2 premieres Sunday, May 6 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.