203-Bete Noire
Credit: Lacey Terrell/SHOWTIME

I’m a cheap date for the core traits of I’m Dying Up Here.

The Showtime series (returning Sunday at 10 p.m. ET) has a lushly over-designed ’70s setting: Bellbottoms, loud-print button-up shirts with shoulder-width collars, all shag everything. It’s a sensitive drama about stand-up culture, so it’s very serious about comedy without ever being funny — a pretty fair summation of what happens when I write about sitcoms. Every character is a symbol for some larger American social reality — the women in their male-dominated field, racial identity, religious tradition vs. burgeoning sexuality. This can be wearisome, but everyone I know considers themselves symbols of something.

I’m Dying Up Here was also watched by barely anyone last year. You’d expect a dramatic shake-up in season 2, a big swing towards a larger audience. But this show’s version of radical rebootery is adding Brad Garrett as a middle-aged comedian with a secret sadness he never stops talking about. More of the same, then, because this is a show about the secret sadness of stand-up comedy: Long days on the road, the nuclear silence after a joke bombs. There are two kinds of people on I’m Dying Up Here: miserable struggling comedians, and miserable successful comedians.

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The cast remains game, but the early episodes of season 2 feel static, ambling in the worst way.

Cassie (Ari Graynor) has a big career moment that goes way wrong, and then she gets sad about her family in distant Texas, and a decision she made long ago. Goldie (Melissa Leo) is planning an exciting comedy-club expansion, but mostly she’s sad about her daughter. “I don’t remember what anything feels like anymore,” says Garrett’s Roy Martin, a Tonight Show favorite with a Vegas pedigree. “Sh– blurs.” That feeling of numbness extends throughout the cast. Ralph (lovably rumpled Erik Griffin) is bummed about the microaggressive racism in the writers’ room of Sonny & Cher, and you feel bummed watching him, and not much else.

The weird thing about I’m Dying Up Here is how this instinct towards comedian melancholy runs right up against a counter-instinct toward sexy escapism. Ron (Clark Duke) is living the high life of new-rich success, playing the breakout (white) character on a (black) family sitcom. The immediate excess suggests an Entourage prequel: He buys a house with a tree growing out of the living room, and the basement has a window looking onto a pool full of Unnamed Skinny-Dippers.

Ron’s two big subplots are: Getting into a hot tub full of champagne with a Penthouse model, and discovering this cool new thing called cocaine. We’re in Dewey Cox territory, and I wish I’m Dying Up Here could thread these needles together: Half ’70s showbiz parody, half close melancholy study of the birth of modern comedy. But the former feels too broad, and the latter always on the nose. (“Dreams,” Cassie muses, “Aren’t those the things you’re supposed to wake up from?”)

In season 2, the show feels stretched between its most obvious motivations, woke enough to recreate the set of Soul Train and then shameless enough to make the whole Soul Train episode about the young-dude comedians’ quest to sleep with a Soul Train dancer.

The cast is gigantic, but in that undernourished way where everyone only gets a character summary and half a plot point. The most intriguing new addition to the cast is Dawn (Xosha Roquemore), a new arrival from the East Coast. She’s a preacher’s daughter with a gloriously vulgar act who is struggling with questions about her sexual identity—heavy stuff, but you feel like we’re getting the Cliffs Notes version of her internal drama, sandwiched between whiplashing story arcs about Hollywood Hills parties, rehab, long scenes where people say “Johnny Carson” a hundred times, and long scenes where Goldie drinks alone in her office.

The show only really comes to life when the young comedians get together, talking shop, swapping dreams, usually at an after-hours restaurant or in a lonely living room with couches comfy enough for your homeless pals to crash on. I’m Dying Up Here captures the special competitive spirit of the comedy wannabes, the anxious camaraderie that knows only a couple people at the table will ever come close to Making It.

There’s a generous honesty in those scenes, but the show’s vision of actually performing stand-up feels vague, prosaic. Characters come up with a whole set of jokes inspired by something that just happened to them a few hours ago. Their pals all watch them from offstage, glowingly staring like they’re characters at the end of an old Spielberg movie. A cynical record exec-turned-TV producer named Gloria (Nicole Ari Parker) shows up to watch Adam (RJ Cyler) do a set. Why? “I wouldn’t be here,” she explains, “If I didn’t see the special in him.” You can see the special in I’m Dying Up Here, but lines like that blunt the show’s sharp edges. To quote Sad Brad Garrett, the sh– blurs.

I'm Dying Up Here
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