Few figures inspire as much ire as Pete Davidson in comedy circles. While the comedian seemingly proved himself on Saturday Night Live and King of Staten Island, many audiences dislike the man. His tabloid exploits are legendary, and his reputation often precedes him. However, he remains one of our youngest stars at only twenty-nine years old. With Lorne Michaels producing, Bupkis provides him with an exciting opportunity on television. Davidson immediately displays his creativity and skillset is a better match for scripted comedy. With Judah Miller, they craft a unique vision of Davidson’s life and family. With a stellar ensemble, a train of guest stars coming and going, and brilliant scripting, Bupkis surprises as one of the most exciting new shows this year.
Bupkis portrays a fictionalized version of Davidson’s real life. He lives in a nice house, and his mother, Amy (Edie Falco), cares for him. His sister Casey (Oona Roche) tries to stay out of the spotlight. His grandfather (Joe Pesci) battles cancer, and his “Uncle” Roy (Brad Garrett) hangs around. Pete struggles with relationships, including recurring love interest and friend Nikki (Chase Sui Wonders). His “friends” surround him with drugs, but Pete wonders if it’s finally time to get clean.
Comedians fictionalizing their own life has been a trend for a long time now. Where Davidson’s version departs from many others comes from its acknowledgment and raw honesty. In many ways, Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Lady Dynamite proves highly influential, but Davidson’s inspirations are far-reaching. The vision of his life is self-deprecating, but it also allows him to play up the outlandish characters he meets in life. Part of what makes Bupkis so effective is Davidson’s seeming self-hatred, but also his ability to highlight the tragedy and comedy of his own life.
Davidson’s ability as a writer shines through, but as a performer, he’s just as compelling. He tries to change himself, and the frustration of knowing he can do better can be read on his face. Yet Davidson displays a self-awareness about himself that’s rare to come by. It is not easy for a performer to feel comfortable making themselves vulnerable, but Davidson goes beyond that by making himself the center of the show.
To add to Davidson’s world, he recruited two of the best living actors to fill out the ensemble. Both Falco and Pesci showcase incredible pathos in their roles. Despite Davidson taking up most of the screen time, they each get enough time to develop their characters. They both sell the comedy as only they can while also ensuring that we see the hurt and pain that Davidson causes them.
These are complex roles, and both more than rise to the occasion. Pesci brings his legendary persona into the role while drawing out unique empathy. Falco gets to play into the meta-text of the story, playing a character who has already been portrayed on screen by another legendary figure in Marissa Tomei. Yet Falco seems an even better fit than Tomei, unleashing Davidson’s mother’s genuine heartbreak in both internal and passionate moments. Each actor creates a unique character within the show while also playing into their iconic personas as screen legends.
The rest of the ensemble gets plenty of laugh moments and shines in their recurring parts. Philip Ettinger surprises as Pete’s go-to assistant. Ettinger brings a scrambled energy that fits his role in Pete’s life. While he’s often kicked around, there’s an undeniable good-natured person, and Ettinger brings that out. Sui Wonders gets to play her real-life role in some fashion, and frankly, her chemistry with Davidson is undeniable. Roche gets to play up the frustrations felt by Davidson’s family, and she does so in both extraordinarily relatable and honest sequences.
The string of guest stars and legends adds unique characteristics to every episode. Garrett is hilarious and earns his screen time in every episode. He may play a very silly character, but his commitment makes him a perfect fit. Bobby Cannavale explodes off the screen in an early episode, while Shane Gillis gets a very funny side role. Ray Romano gets a three-episode arc that is among the funniest things he’s ever done. An exasperated Sunita Mani shows the frustrations that Davidson’s antics can wreak on a production team.
Yet the two performances that shine brightest are those of John Mulaney and Simon Rex. The one-scene discussion of addiction and drugs with Mulaney is exceptionally impactful and hilarious. Likewise, Davidson’s frank discussion about the impact of drugs and alcohol on his life is quite something. Allowing Mulaney a forum beyond his standup to discuss his issues makes his struggle relatable. The calming performance stands in stark contrast to the drug-addled Rex, who blows into the frame like a hurricane. Rex’s intensity pushes Davidson into his worst impulses and delivers an incredible devil. Bupkis contains multitudes, and the series’ ability to have room for both of these performances speaks to its mastery of tone.
The best aspect of Bupkis is how unpredictable and artistic it can be at any time. From episode to episode, the style changes. A trip to Miami takes on the style and action of a Fast and the Furious film. Another episode in rehab turns into a black-and-white exploration of drug use. This flexibility and willingness to let the stories direct the artistic spin of Bupkis help it stand out as a stylistic triumph.