Pete Davidson is so close to getting it in his new Peacock series, “Bupkis.” As his character Pete Davidson confides late into this sometimes amusing romp through his world, “If I wasn’t me, me and my boys would be making fun of me.” It’s not that Davidson deserves ridicule simply for being famous, but that he still struggles to be more than his image. Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” essentially gave him a child star's Faustian deal, including exposure and celebrity that we’ve seen play out in public; Davidson’s fame has started to eat away at whatever made him noteworthy in the first place. “Bupkis” is his chance to push back on that; sometimes, he takes full advantage of it. But it’s also clear when the show’s existence alone is a self-satisfied artistic statement.
Yes, Judd Apatow tried something like this similarly with 2020’s “The King of Staten Island,” about a young man named Scott whose life was inspired by Davidson’s before “Saturday Night Live” happened. “Bupkis” takes place in a post-“King of Staten Island” world, down to a funny line where his New York mother, now played by Edie Falco with eagerness and sweetness, says, “Marisa Tomei played me in the movie!” And while Apatow’s epic inspired by Davidson’s life had its hum-drum charms, “Bupkis” does away with the James L. Brooks-like sentimentality and focuses on Davidson as a person. This is what it’s like to be Davidson, including the trauma of losing his father when he was young or the lack of personal space that comes with fame. He still lives at home, in between his courtside appearances at basketball games and dates with other famous people.
We sometimes see Davidson "at work," like when he is called away for a Canadian film shoot on Christmas, a nod to his brief appearance in James Gunn's "The Suicide Squad." In its more distinct moments, “Bupkis” gets some amusing showbiz comedy from problems that could happen to him, like when an embarrassing bad picture becomes the annoying headshot his Wikipedia page taunts him with.
And like “The King of Staten Island,” the series ventures back to Davidson’s past; the 25-minute structure can make for some finite episodes from directors Jason Orley (“Big Time Adolescence”) and Oz Rodriguez (“Vampires vs. the Bronx”). Bobby Cannavale has a warm leading role as one of his uncles, who we see on his wedding day. He gives a prank-loving young Pete advice (with the camera bouncing between poignant, straight-on close-ups) and is one of many impressionable father figures, including when he does cocaine in the bathroom and tells him, "Do as I say, not as I do." Steve Buscemi, who also appeared in “The King of Staten Island,” returns as a more literal father figure of questionable wisdom.
The star-studded malaise of “Bupkis” teeter-totters between amusing and boring, and it's too apparent how much the scenarios are pleased with themselves but have little depth. (At one point, "Bupkis" treats going to black and white cinematography like some radical choice.) It’s a comic platform that tries too hard with its cringe-hungry jokes (including sexual gags from the first episode that Peacock has asked press not to spoil) and then is too content with its simple set-ups, like when Davidson and his buddies go to an amusement park.
It’s telling how the series underuses family characters, like those played by Joe Pesci (as his gruff grandfather) and Brad Garrett (a sweetheart uncle), for thin arcs about Pete disappointing his loved ones. Edie Falco gets more to work with as a mother who wants to support her son but is hurt by each public fiasco. In one effective beat, she believes a hoax about his death, especially when she can’t get in touch with him, when the only thing that died is Pete’s iPhone.
Co-created by Davidson, Judah Miller, and Dave Sirus, “Bupkis” has a few mature ideas on its mind that interact with its shenanigans, but it doesn’t plant many of these ideas deep enough for them to grow. Instead, it’s as if Davidson and company want to confirm that he’s thinking about aging, substance abuse, possibly starting a family, and doing more. But it comes off as representational, and the slack, unsurprising plotting makes clear how much “Bupkis” doesn’t want to follow through on these ideas but leave them as messy or unfinished and shrug them off as art.
The best episode arrives at the midway point, in which Simon Rex of “Red Rocket” (channeling his rapper alter ego Dirt Nasty) co-leads a “Fast & Furious” parody, complete with colorful cars in speedy formation, songs ripped from the movies, and a lesson about Davidson's makeshift family. It’s a sugary pop culture pastiche fitting for a show that loves its place in media and "Bupkis" could use more of that chutzpah. It's also a moment in which “Bupkis” aims higher than its usual mode: just hanging out with Pete Davidson and the people he has strained relationships with, which includes his overwhelmed manager/friend, his sister, his long-time situation-ship, his stoner entourage, and more.
Just like Apatow, “Bupkis” loves a surprising cameo. Cameos are a big part of this world, where famous people move in and out, playing themselves (including Jon Stewart, Ray Romano, John Mulaney, LaLa Anthony, Jadakiss, and many more) or random characters. Eventually, the appearances lose their luster, which is significant given how many are crammed in. Without intending, “Bupkis” becomes about the dimming light of celebrity, with Davidson as its power source.
Throughout, the droll series fails to answer what makes Davidson so special, not just famous. A vehicle like this has to reflect the talent of its lead. “Seinfeld” at least had Jerry’s interstitial stand-up sets, or “Dave” has Lil Dicky’s impressive lyrical yarns about his penis. “Bupkis” doesn’t have solid enough writing for Davidson to be associated with; its imagination sells him short. And if it had larger ambitions to be funnier, that wouldn’t hurt. We get from this show that Davidson is ready to be taken more seriously, but it's still too hazy about why we should do that.
The whole season was screened for review. All eight episodes of "Bupkis" premiere on Peacock on May 4th.