If Maron were the kind of sitcom that needed a “previously on” segment, it could make do with any random close-up of creator-star Marc Maron looking dissatisfied. Maybe it could repeat the same close-up every week. It’s that kind of show. Maron — or maybe I should say “Maron,” since it’s a scripted series — seems incapable of being happy, either generally or in the moment. He’s drawn to situations that bring out the worst in him. He’s human that way — so human that I wish the show were great instead of okay-to-good, and that Maron the character were as fascinating as Maron the comedian and podcaster.
I can almost hear Maron grumbling, “Here we go with the goddamn Louie thing again.” It’s unfair to compare Louie and Maron directly, but I do think that we can compare them glancingly, because they’re both acts of translation, reimagining a comedian’s sensibility in a different medium that requires different skills. Louie’s great innovation was finding a cinematic equivalent to his own storytelling flexibility — that Richard Pryor–, George Carlin–like sliding scale. Louis C.K’s show captures the range of his stand-up voice. It can be somewhat realistic one minute, grotesquely exaggerated or even expressionistic the next, then satirical, then dreamlike (or nightmarish). A generation earlier, Seinfeld managed the same feat, though Jerry Seinfeld’s more tightly focused brand of humor meant that his show (co-created with Larry David) was always a lot more on point from week to week, though its voice evolved over time, becoming wilder and darker and more punitive. I have no idea exactly what the stylistic equivalent would be for the TV sitcom equivalent of a podcast, but I don’t think Maron has figured it out, if indeed it wants to figure it out. And maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s content to be a single-camera sitcom about a talented, self-defeating asshole. Yes, asshole. That’s the show’s word, not mine. “A lot of people think you’re an asshole,” Maron’s agent Emily (Susy Kane) tells him. “Come on, don’t they listen to my podcast?” Maron growls. “Who are they, those pieces of shit?”
As sitcoms about talented, self-defeating assholes go, though, Maron is pretty good, though it has yet to plumb the sublime depths of self-loathing showcased on the likes of Louie, Girls, and Veep. The new season picks up with Maron and his girlfriend Jen (Nora Zehetner), a fan he impulsively hooked up with last season, still in a relationship — or maybe I should say “relationship,” since Maron isn’t the settle-down type, and he’s pretty clearly with Jen because she’s young and cute. Jen wants him to stop talking about their love life on his podcast. Meanwhile, his agent is trying to kick his career into higher gear by putting him on AMC’s The Walking Dead postshow chatfest Talking Dead. It’s hosted by Chris Hardwick, whom this show’s version of Maron has been talking trash about for years. Maron doesn’t even watch The Walking Dead but thinks he can fake his way through. You know where this is going.
Is it a spoiler to say that Maron and Jen aren’t meant to be? It is? Fine, I’ll take my lumps; you didn’t think the season was going to end with them getting married and living happily ever after, did you? Maron also hooks up with a real estate agent named Lauren (Elaine Hendrix) who has an inconvenient and possibly dangerous secret, and they have raucous Dream On–style sex. He gets into a nerdy one-upsmanship duel with a record store clerk (Jonah Ray) and buys stuff he doesn’t need to prove what a connoisseur he is. It’s all mildly funny but wearisome, and pitched in such a way that you know that if you complain it’s mildly funny but wearisome, you’ll get pushback from fans along the lines of, “But that’s the point!” Most of the supporting characters are more sounding boards for Maron than bona fide characters, and the men consistently fare better than the women, many of whom would have fit right into a show starring one of Maron’s co-producers, Denis Leary. (Maron’s mother Toni, played by the great Sally Kellerman, is a preening narcissist who, in the season’s second episode, drops the bombshell that she’s had two boob jobs.)
The major exception to all these complaints is the podcast scenes. They have a spontaneity and genuineness that the straightforward ones tend to lack. As on his real-world podcast, Maron, one of the greatest to ever play this particular game, takes you so deep into Marc Maron’s head that it never occurs to you to wish that the characters in the booth with Maron were equally well-developed. And a lot of the time they are as well-developed. At the very least, they’re strong and confident and quirky enough to go toe-to-toe with their quick-witted but scathing host, who has true star quality when he’s just talking into a microphone but often seems stiff and repetitiously cranky in scenes where he’s called upon to act. Sarah Silverman has a pip of a booth scene in tonight’s premiere (their conversation about how artists are compelled, in some ways obligated, to use their personal lives in their art is sharper than any of the traditionally scripted scenes elsewhere in the episode). And there’s good stuff coming up from other Maron contemporaries, many of whom have been repeat guests on “WTF,” which you should listen to whether you think Maron is living up to its potential or not. If video killed this particular radio star, that might not be the worst thing in the world. Michael Jordan wasn’t much of a baseball player.