It's the summer of 1994, and the streets of New York are pulsing with hip-hop. Set against this backdrop, a lonely teenager named Luke Shapiro spends his last summer before university selling marijuana throughout New York City, trading it with his unorthodox psychotherapist for treatment, while having a crush on his stepdaughter.
Set in the celebrated and infamous L.A. stand-up comedy scene of the '70s, where the careers of most comedy superstars began, "I'm Dying Up Here" delves into the inspired and damaged psyches that inhabit the hilarious, but complex business of making an audience laugh. The series is based on William Knoedelseder's book of the same name.
I just finished a two-day binge of the first two seasons of I'm Dying Up Here. To be honest, I approached it with pretty low expectations, so maybe that's one reason why I came away liking the show so much. The pilot really doesn't do justice to the rest of the show--and that's a good thing, because I would always rather watch a show hit its stride and get better than watch it go downhill.
The best reasons to watch this show are the writing and the characters. This show does what the best ensemble shows do well, which is combine and recombine the characters into different situations, so that their relationships with one another become how we understand who they are (just like our relationships do in real life). Even when the characters do something predictable, they usually do it in unpredictable ways. The characters are three-dimensional, flawed but mostly likeable, and I found myself rooting for them when they succeeeded and sympathizing when they failed. The dynamic between tne young and older comics is interesting, and it's intersting to see professional mentorship explored within this particular world. The writing shows a surprising sensitivity and nuance, and there's something about that plus the 70s setting that reminds me of Almost Famous.
Some people have complained in their reviews about the decor and clothing on the show, because they think it's too over the top. As a child of the 70s, I beg to differ; if anything, there are too many contemporary touches in the character's costumes. (Just watch anything on TV from the early 1970s and see what I mean). The same goes for the interior design; it look exactly as I remember things looking, especially the kinds of places where relatively flashy people lived. I also read some complaints about the amount of smoking on the show--but I remember the 70s, and (even through the 80s) we lived in a haze of the stuff. I also have to say that I appreciate that, for the most part, the show depicts drug use in a frank and mostly unmoralizing way; it doesn't glamorize , but it also doesn't preach. Also, lest I forget, the comedy spots are actuallly really dang funny. The show's raison d'etre isn't to only be funny; but, as a show about comics, it carries the water it needs to in order to make things belieable.
I also read a few comments that compared this to HBO's dreadful Vinyl. That's nonsense. Vinyl was an unholy mess, so unbelievably silly and while it took itself so seriously--and it was BORING. The only interesting scenes took place in the record company offices. The characters were utterly flat, their problems barely registered over all the sound and fury signifying nothing, and to top it all off, their David Bowie had a double chin and the "new discovery" young singer sounded like a mid-2000s American Idol contestant. Plus, you don't need a dramatic zoom shot every time someone does a line of coke--and people don't always yell when they do one. Please. There's no comparison. Vinyl was a mess and shouldn't have been made in the first place.
I'm Dying Up Here is a good show with potential to be a great one, but a few things get in the way. The drama sometimes verges on being a little soapy, with a lot of emotional weight invested in who's sleeping with Cass (our protagoneuse)--lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth because apparently every guy in the whole comedy world wants to be with her. She's adorable, but come on--not every funny guy is a sad sack who expresses his insecurites by glomming onto women. Early on in the show, things got a little self-aware, with lots of harping on about the "alchemy" of comedy as a remedy for personal damage, and owning your pain, and things like that--which would better be shown than told in most cases. It seems like the show laid off talking about catharses in the second season, and I think that was an improvement. From time to time, there are a few speech anachronisms in the dialogue (I think "getting in your own way" is 2000s jargon, although I could be wrong about that); they're not egregious, but the show is otherwise so good that they stick out when they happen. People spoke differently in the 70s; I don't think I've heard one person say "terrific," and that word was the 70s equivalent of "awesome." But these are mostly quibbles, and they're mostly forgiveable, because the show gets so much more right than it does wrong.
I really hope that Showtime extends this show's run for a nice, long time. As HBO has become the network for giant, epic, CGIfests in its original programmng, Showtime has stepped up and dug for gold in humanist stories like this one. I like dragons as much as the next gal, but I also want to to watch people with interesting lives. The next Sopranos won't come from a show about a zombie apocolypse; it's going to be a psychologically astute character study (which was what the Sopranos really was underneath it all).
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