‘Bupkis’ Review: Pete Davidson Makes Art of His Juicy Life in Peacock Comedy
“Bupkis” should eliminate any lingering doubt that Pete Davidson’s favorite topic is Pete Davidson.
To be fair, he’s a pretty juicy subject. Premiering Thursday, the new Peacock series presents a fictionalized version of the comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” star’s life, from tragic roots (his father, a fireman, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11) to tabloid fodder to a grab bag of self-destructive tendencies, including an enthusiastic addiction to drugs and alcohol. He can seem like a snake eating its own tail as river-deep insecurities feed his comedy, the lifestyle of which sends him careening further out of control.
With “Bupkis,” created by Davidson, Judah Miller and Dave Sirus, he turns the trainwreck into a theme park ride of sorts, or perhaps a hall of cracked mirrors. If Fellini and Judd Apatow (who actually directed an autobiographical Davidson movie, 2020’s “The King of Staten Island”) made a TV show together it might feel like “Bupkis.” There’s even a black-and-white episode, set in a rehab facility, where Pete’s fellow patients include Machine Gun Kelly and Paul Walter Hauser (playing fictionalized versions of themselves, of course).
Davidson is fast becoming a leading self-chronicler in an age readily defined by narcissism. At least he’s trying to chisel some art out of it all.
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He’s also got a deep rolodex. Joe Pesci wonderfully underplays Pete’s grandfather, slowly dying of cancer but still crotchety. Edie Falco plays Pete’s mom with the confidence of an actress with no fear of embodying deeply flawed human beings. Bobby Cannavale is a desperately thrill-seeking uncle who clings to the fact he was named the sexiest man in Staten Island in 1992. Ray Romano, Jon Stewart and Al Gore are among those who show up to play themselves. And because this is a Staten Island story, Method Man makes a brief cameo, as a carnival hustler.
“Bupkis” can get a little baggy in the narrative department, but an interesting performance unfurls in just about every scene of the eight-episode first season. It’s rarely boring. Just as important, you get the impression that Davidson really knows these characters. They feel lived-in and damaged, perhaps by Pete himself.
“Bupkis” is committed to going meta at every opportunity. In Episode 4, Pete heads down to Florida with his crew to perform at a birthday party for Vin Diesel’s daughter. He’s trying to land a part in the next “Fast and the Furious” movie. Instead, he meets a lunatic played by Simon Rex who leads Pete and Co. into a highway chase/shootout that becomes their own action flick. In a later episode, Pete ventures to Canada, where he thinks he’s about to act in a Vietnam War movie with Brad Pitt. Instead, he gets Pitt’s body double, and the director, J.J. Abrams, is present only on a tablet. Disillusioned, Pete wanders off the set and scores some drugs at a bowling alley, blowing off the rest of the day’s shoot and falling into a deep emotional hole.
For all of its silliness, “Bupkis” is quite wise in the ways of addiction and self-indulgence, two subjects that generally go hand in hand. “I’m so obsessed with my own life and problems,” Pete tells fellow addict and comedian John Mulaney over brunch, in what might be the realest scene of the season. “I just want a regular-type life.” But he has no idea what that might even look like. When it’s time for Pete to go to rehab, he realizes he must ditch his enabling entourage if he is to have any chance to get better. It’s a heartbreaking moment, not the least because his best friends are essentially paid hangers-on and he has no clue how to get new ones.
One could reasonably argue that Davidson just isn’t interesting enough for this kind of epic navel-gazing, that he’s just another knucklehead who can’t get out of his own way and so draws paparazzi like flies. But he also has the comedian’s gift of mining his pain and missteps for mischief, and he does it with a sense of pathos that makes him easy to root for. He’s also fun to look at, with oversize features that convey arrogance and vulnerability all at once. He has an eternally childlike quality that he instinctively uses to portray arrested development.
“Bupkis” is strange and creative enough to accumulate good will as it goes. It also elicits an eerie moral ambivalence. You want Davidson, and his alter ego, to figure it out. But at this point autobiographical chaos is kind of his brand, and he’s good at it.
As he blurs the line between the fictional Pete and the real Davidson, it’s hard not to hope they both figure it out.
“Bupkis” premieres Thursday, May 4, on Peacock.