Three episodes into Crashing’s first season, the series has already fallen into a recognizable rhythm: Pete, the evergreen straight man, plays against semi-wacky characters in unfamiliar situations that directly comment on his current predicament. This isn’t itself a problem, as all sitcoms codify certain themes into a tried-and-true formula with which they can liberally play around, but this particular structure highlights a couple flaws baked into Crashing that are difficult to ignore, mainly slack pacing.
“Yard Sale” is a fine episode, more or less on the same quality level as the past two, but what’s disappointing about it is that it suggests some interesting ideas about the Pete character and his relationship to comedy that never really get explored. Though Pete’s ex-wife Jess (Lauren Lapkus) cheated on him with a fellow teacher, “Yard Sale” demonstrates that the infidelity was at least partially caused by Pete’s neglect of his husbandly duties in favor of his comedy obsession. Moreover, the episode tries to softly critique the pseudo-lofty ideals of the modern stand-up comic, mainly by noting how it’s laughable to try to infuse existential meaning into telling jokes for a living. These are both stellar ideas for a series about comedy, so it’s especially unfortunate that the episode never serves them as well as it should.
At least some of this can be attributed to the series’ loose narrative structure, which neatly falls in line with the Apatow model of comedy. In “Yard Sale,” Jess informs Pete that she will be selling some of their stuff at a yard sale before her move to Tampa and she’d like him to come down and pick out what he wants to keep. So, Pete and T.J. Miller head upstate where mild chaos reigns. Pete’s journals are accidentally sold to an old man who bought their dresser and he and Jess’s new boyfriend, Leif (George Basil), travel to get them back. Miller and Jess get into an argument about her treatment of Pete and her low view of comedy. Jess and Pete talk about the demise of their relationship. Aaaand scene.
Taken as separate entities, these bits are often funny, but when edited together, they feel especially disjointed. Though last week’s episode took a minor detour with Gina Gershon near the end, it featured a tight plot and allowed both the humor and emotion to arise naturally. But “Yard Sale” just places Pete, Miller, Jess, and Leif in a certain setting and expects that to be enough, and it never quite works. There’s a stop-start rhythm to the proceedings that keeps the ideas on the surface without doing the legwork to actually examine them.
Take the two best scenes in the episode: Jess versus Miller and Jess versus Pete. While staying in Miller’s apartment, Pete learns about his philosophy on comedy, how it’s like a true religion (“You’re preaching to people this ideology of seeing everything with a smile”) and a calling for truth tellers. Miller certainly has a way with words and he can sound smart, but a lot of what he’s actually saying is ridiculous, and Holmes and Apatow are keenly aware of that. When Miller confronts Jess at the yard sale, he chides her for not supporting Pete’s dream, telling her that comedians are modern-day philosophers. “Did Socrates ever talk about his nut sweat?” she replies. “Did Plato ever talk about jerking off into a trash can?”
But Miller then replies that he’s had podcast listeners contact him to say that his show has had a meaningful impact on their lives, especially in hard times. As much as his pseudo-intellectual bullshit can produce eye rolls, it’s difficult to deny this tangible effect as well as Pete’s respect of it. However, it’s equally difficult to deny that Pete’s blind chase of his dream had a negative impact on his marriage, forcing Jess to build her entire identity around supporting him. While the two are looking through Pete’s old journals, he tries to spin them as good memories, but Jess points out an entry during the week when they thought she might be pregnant. Pete wrote two lines about that and three pages about how great Doug Stanhope was on Louie. It’s a pretty clear evocation of Pete’s priorities, and the final nail in the coffin comes when Jess tells him flat-out, “I’d be able to support you more if I were really in love with you.” There’s no going back from that.
These scenes are good, but they’d be even better if the surrounding material had more purpose. The detour with Leif is fine, but it isn’t outrageously funny and doesn’t really accomplish more than his first appearance. We already knew that he’s a pretty Zen individual who has genuine respect for Pete. Miller’s asides in the episode are also good, but break up the rhythm a bit too much. As such, there are too many moments that feel like shrugs: Miller overstepping his bounds and burning Pete’s furniture to “set him free,” Pete turning down Miller’s request to play Super Nintendo (a console that Pete fought for at the yard sale), and Miller going up before Pete at his small showcase. Crashing is trafficking in good material, but hasn’t yet found a way to collate it into an effective whole. It’s early going, so it’s definitely possible that can change, but as of now, it makes for a frustrating viewing experience.
• Miller is funny in the episode, especially when he’s cracking wise at the yard sale. When a neighbor picks up a Scrubs DVD, he tells him: “Is that what you think is missing from your life? You made it this far without seeing Scrubs. Why cave now? Travel. Make love on the beach.”
• Pete works best when he’s angry and desperate, as evidenced by his impotent fury whenever he’s confronted with an obstacle. At this juncture, at any other mode is a toss-up, but it’s great seeing him wound up.
• I don’t really buy that Jess would sell Pete’s stuff to give him the money. It’s a pretty cheap way to communicate how nice everyone is, but then again, Jess as a character is very well-defined.
• T.J. Miller on the arbitrary nature of time: “I think what’s actually wrong is that human beings arbitrarily decided on this system of time. It’s just a way for us to make sense of this meaningless world. A nihilist would say once we disregard that meaning, we can make our own meaning and then we become gods, masters of our own time. The concept is vaguely Native American.”
• For the record, Doug Stanhope was great on that episode of Louie.