There’s a moment in the second to last episode of Bupkis where John Mulaney shares a pretty universal truth about his friend, Pete Davidson: “I don’t know what it’s like to live it (Davidson’s life), but god damn do we love watching it.”
We all know the origin story and the myth of Davidson, the bong and dong comedy king; how his dad died on 9/11, how his mom lives with him in Staten Island, the rapid ascent by way of revealing Weekend Update desk bits on SNL and the support of Lorne Michaels (who produces Bupkis), the carousel of famous women that he’s dated (Kim K, Ariana Grande), the Kanye beef, the drugs and mental health issues he’s wrestled with. And if you don’t know about all of Davidson’s adventures and misadventures, believe me, there’s enough content out there to get you caught up quick (smash those hyperlinks, baybeee). For nearly 10 years, we’ve all been obsessed with him, even if we don’t always know why and he doesn’t always know what to do with the attention. He’s really good at selling projects that capitalize on it, though.
The Judd Apatow-directed and Davidson co-written King Of Staten Island (Dave Sirus, who co-wrote with Apatow and Davidson also co-created Bupkis) acts as a pseudo-Davidson origin story, swapping details out to not technically be considered biographical. Imagine an alternate universe where Davidson doesn’t get into SNL and this might be what that would look like. Now we have Bupkis, a semi-autobiographical tale that’s more exaggerated and absurd (with gun-toting thrill rides and pervy Ray Romano hallucinations) with true-to-life touches around the public fixation with Davidson, his brushes with suicidal ideation, his drug addiction, and his efforts to clean up and go to rehab, including a much-publicized stint during the filming of the show.
At the start, Bupkis seems more consumed with establishing Davidson as the maladjusted leader of a group of drug-addled lost boys and a burden on his family. He’s got a good heart, a common thread in these kinds of Davidson-starring stories, which also includes his work in Big Time Adolescence, which wasn’t based on his life even though it’s basically the same character (Jason Orley, who wrote and directed that film, also directs 3 episodes of Bupkis, including the season finale).
The initial version of the show is outrageous, kinda crude, and a great hang. The dynamic between Davidson and Joe Pesci (who plays his grandfather) yields a lot of treasure (Edie Falco, as Davidson’s mom, is also great), but as Pesci’s character becomes more stern and disappointed in Davidson’s repeated fuck ups, the fun fades some. Pesci’s “Pop” is no longer a part of the crew, getting some kicks in and talking tough on his way out the door after revealing a cancer diagnosis. Now he’s part of the moral center of a quarter-life coming-of-age show that progressively becomes more concerned with Davidson’s spiral, reinforcing the idea, over and over, that Davidson’s character is a boy in a world where he needs to become a man.
So, is this some kind of 8-episode exercise in self-flagellation with Davidson airing his self-grievances and failures? Maybe, but the point seems less about pointing to (or glamorizing) the bad behavior and more about adding a little more humanity and dimension to the overall myth of Davidson, which is a runaway train of a narrative that unfairly defines who he is. Bupkis feels like it’s about Pete Davidson trying to have some influence on the wave that he’s ridden, for better or worse, across his entire career. A futile but interesting endeavor.
Jumping back to Mulaney for a moment (and the mutually self-deprecating yet casual scene between him and Davidson really is a tremendous highlight), there’s a line in his new special, Baby J, that has really stuck with me (and which resonates after watching Davidson tell a version of his own story): “Likeability is a jail.”
Entitlement blooms when it comes to celebrities and the details around their descent. We think we’re owed the full story, full contrition, full access. One can either shrug and surrender to that or look for more balance. Mulaney chose to bleed for his audience, but he also refused to comment substantially on his divorce or his new marriage. At one point, Mulaney even clarifies the obvious: these are the addiction stories he’s willing to tell us, not everything that happened. As confessionals go, it’s pretty controlled. Which, to some might seem slick or disingenuous, but to me seems really honest about the transaction. “I’m going to give you 25% of the story and then we’re going to move on to other things because I don’t want this to define your relationship to me any more than it has to.” This is made clear by the fact that he refuses to deviate from the visual and stylistic ID that he’s established as uniquely his over the last decade or so. New chapter, not a new book. Keep it moving.
Davidson is very much in the same kind of likability jail and dealing with those same unfair expectations and fixations. Moreso, because so much of his comedic style is tied into the notion of him as a drug-addled eternal adolescent. The thing is he might be compounding the problem by focusing so much of his work on trying to explain what it’s like to live his life and justify our interest in watching it.
In Bupkis, Davidson is Davidson, a goofy kid who falls ass-backwards into a dream life of comedy, sex, and indulgence when it comes to drugs and fun. But he’s also self-aware, conflicted, effortlessly charming, and heartful in a way that makes it real easy to root for him, especially in gentler moments when he’s courting his on-again-off-again girlfriend, exploring fatherhood as an option, trying to be there for the people who have been there for him, and trying to take rehab seriously. I really like that character and the show itself, but I really don’t want a 2nd season. Bupkis shows, once again, that Pete Davidson is a hell of a writer and actor who owes it to himself to play characters besides Pete Davidson more often. The real pathway to controlling the narrative comes from blowing it up. Will he ever really try? The real question is, will we ever let him succeed if he does?
All episodes of ‘Bupkis’ are available to stream on Peacock now.