Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye out for the best new shows on the horizon. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of Peacock’s Bupkis.
If you click on Peacock’s latest series, the surreal and sweet dark comedy Bupkis, there’s a chance you’re already familiar with Pete Davidson. The show’s co-creator, star, and lightly fictionalized subject is a household name in a strange and singular way; if you don’t know him for his time on Saturday Night Live or standup, you know him for who he’s dated or from memes, or commercials for Taco Bell and Smartwater. Davidson isn’t just extremely famous but extremely divisive – everything about him seems to garner strong opinions. Bupkis, the chaotic and creative new series about Davidson’s life, knows all of this. Yet, it still manages to upend our preconceived notions about the guy with brutal honesty and good humor.
First, though, Bupkis attempts to weed out the weak. The premiere of the eight-episode first season leans into everything off-putting about Davidson’s tabloid-presented persona: it’s crass and dumb, hingeing on taboo jokes and cringe-inducing missteps. But after that, Bupkis is off to the races – and quickly evolves into a series with a strong creative voice and a cleverly surreal edge. Episodes often start with simple, sitcom-like plots (Pete’s considering having kids, or Pete is attending an event in Florida) and spin out of control with a mix of strange, hilarious side quests and Davidson’s own genially self-destructive energy. The show is charming, even as it ultimately hones in on very real addiction problems facing the main character.
Bupkis features an unbelievable slate of guest and supporting actors, some of whom play themselves while others take on fictional roles. Much of the show’s success is thanks to an impressively utilized generation of actors playing Pete’s elder family members; Joe Pesci is his grandfather, Bobby Cannavale and Brad Garrett are two uncles, and Edie Falco is his mother. Falco, in particular, gives a beautiful performance here as a character who’s at times defined, despite herself, by her fear over her son’s safety. Bupkis shares plenty of DNA with another Davidson-inspired project, the 2020 Judd Apatow movie The King of Staten Island. Still, in comparison, that film seems to have sanded the sharpest edges off the Davidson family. Here, we see them warts and all – especially Pete.
If Bupkis has a close TV relative, it’s probably Louie. This acclaimed and innovative dark comedy series gained an uncomfortable legacy when its creator and star, Louis C.K., admitted to a pattern of sexual misconduct. The show possesses not just the same surprising, offbeat narrative inventiveness of that series but also the same fear of solipsism. Davidson, as we see him, is acutely aware of the impact his habits, including rampant drug use, reckless driving, and oft-expressed thoughts of suicide, scare his family. He can’t seem to break the habit, though, and in what might be the show’s most singular quality, they all still love him anyway. Under all the layers of comedy and star-studded misadventure, Bupkis is actually an addiction story, and a surprisingly warm and humanizing one at that.
It’s also, it should be said, weird as hell. In one episode, Pete spends a bleak holiday season in Canada, shooting one scene of a blockbuster film on a creepily empty soundstage – even the director only appears on Zoom. In another, he and his group of stoner yes men end up in a Fast & The Furious-style car chase with a dude named Crispy (Red Rocket star Simon Rex, naturally) that escalates beyond all belief. One recurring bit involves a vaguely devilish version of Ray Romano, while a particularly frank scene about recovery sees John Mulaney playing himself. As horror fans who watched the show’s trailer are quick to point out, even Art The Clown from Terrifier makes an appearance.
Bupkis might sound like a show that’s throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, but it’s actually not. Protagonist Pete’s story is inherently chaotic, but co-creators Davidson, Judah Miller, and Dave Sirius have a method to their madness. While The King of Staten Island framed itself as a coming-of-age story about a man in arrested development, Bupkis aims to show a type of growth that’s much less linear. There’s no single rock bottom here but a series of drug-fueled spinouts punctuated by moments of clarity, wisdom, and delight. If the darkest parts of Bupkis bring to mind Louie, the most enjoyable parts are reminiscent of Jackass, a franchise about some mens’ surprisingly complementary drives toward both danger and love.
This show won’t be for everyone – Davidson has his persistent haters, as the series shows – but it was certainly for me. Bupkis is stealthily ambitious; it aims to be many things, from a shaggy family dramedy to a cameo-filled comedy to an honest, to a personal story about addiction and self-destruction. It not only succeeds on most fronts, but it’s probably the best thing Davidson has ever made.
Bupkis is currently streaming on Peacock. Watch the series trailer here.