In Defense of Pete Davidson

The comedian's new show "Bupkis" is a reminder of his underrated talent

May 4, 2023 6:36 am
Pete Davidson
Why do people hate this man so much?
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Being a celebrity in general seems awful for any number of reasons — paparazzi, parasocial relationships and plenty of preconceived notions about you, to name a few — but there are certain ones whose experiences with fame seem especially horrific: Britney Spears, certainly (or, really, any female celebrity from the early aughts). Child stars, for sure. And of course, there’s Pete Davidson.

Davidson’s been one of the internet’s favorite punching bags for years now, for reasons that have more to do with our own insecurities and flaws than they do with any of his failings. He’s dated some of the most famous, sought-after women in the world — most notably, Ariana Grande, Kim Kardashian, Kate Beckinsale and Emily Ratajkowski — and with each one, there’s been a fresh round of internet outrage, confusion and thinkpieces struggling to understand how such conventionally attractive women could possibly be slumming it with him. (Spoiler alert: he’s funny, good-looking and nice to his mom. Why is this so difficult?) He’s the reason “big dick energy” entered the lexicon, and yet to this day, there still seems to be a large swath of the population — men, mostly — that fundamentally misunderstands the term, falsely assuming it has to do with an actual giant penis rather than the quiet confidence he carries himself with.

And so, because people are jealous, he’s been the subject of all sorts of cruel jokes and blog posts analyzing his physical appearance. (As someone who, like Davidson, has Crohn’s disease and often struggles to cover up the dark, puffy circles around my eyes I get when it flares up, I am begging you: can we please officially retire the term “butthole eyes“?) He’s been objectified and portrayed as some sort of untalented himbo. Even before he started dating Grande, he was divisive as one of the youngest-ever cast members on SNL, joining the show when he was just 20 in 2014. His early appearances on “Weekend Update” as the show’s “resident young person” were solid, but for every new fan there was another person scratching their head going, “Really? This guy?”

Those folks have another accomplishment of his to fret over this week. His new Peacock series, Bupkis (the entire eight-episode first season of which is now streaming), features an absolutely stacked cast that includes Edie Falco as his mother and the legendary Joe Pesci as his grandfather. (Yes, you read that correctly. We all thought The Irishman was the 80-year-old actor’s last hurrah, but Davidson detractors can now add “lured Joe Pesci out of retirement” to the list, along with “dated Kim Kardashian” and “got cast on SNL before he could legally drink,” of things he’s done that they just can’t wrap their minds around.) Bobby Cannavale, Brad Garrett, Ray Romano, Jon Stewart, John Mulaney, Steve Buscemi, Jane Curtain, Charlie Day, J.J. Abrams, Kenan Thompson, Sebastian Stan and Al Gore are just some of the other familiar faces who appear in the series. How can anyone really think that an untalented loser would be able to assemble such a murderer’s row of guest stars?

Like his 2020 movie The King of Staten Island, Bupkis sees Davidson playing a lightly fictionalized version of himself — a guy who lives on Staten Island with his mother, who tragically lost his firefighter father on 9/11 and who struggles with mental illness, drug addiction and a general fear that he’s not living up to his true potential. But while he was “Scott Carlin” in the former semi-autobiographical work, on Bupkis, he’s Pete Davidson — and the show is better for it. By playing himself, he’s able to poke fun at his reputation while also unpacking the trauma that goes along with it.

The first episode opens with a scene where Davidson Googles himself. When he types his name into the search engine, the suggested autofills include “pete davidson girlfriend,” “pete davidson sucks” and “pete davidson dark eye disease.” The results he finds are not great. Some, like “Pete Davidson and the Rise of the Scumbro“, are real articles that have been written about him, while others — “4 Times Pete Davidson Was the Dumbest Man on Earth,” “12 Things Horribly Wrong With Pete Davidson” — are exaggerated for comedic effect. One plot line sees him hunting down a troll who keeps uploading an unflattering photo of him to Wikipedia, while another forces him to suss out which of his friends is secretly tipping off the paparazzi to his whereabouts. It’s all funny, but it also serves as a gentle reminder of just how weird this man’s day-to-day life must be.

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Not every episode of Bupkis is a winner. The first episode is silly and raunchy but not particularly compelling, and episode four is a Fast and the Furious parody that adds next-to-nothing to the season’s overarching story. But for the most part, it’s incredibly good, simultaneously funny and tragic, and it serves as an important reminder that outside of all the tabloid stuff, Davidson’s actually very talented. The second episode takes place mostly in September 2001, where a young Pete is forced to put on a brave face at a family wedding just weeks after his father’s death, and it offers up some key insight into how his grief led to him eventually pursuing a career in comedy. (The episode ends with a montage of actual photos of a young Davidson dancing and hamming it up at the wedding depicted on the show — an important reminder that he’s not just a “scumbro” or “that guy who was engaged to Ariana Grande,” but a real person who has dealt with some very real, very awful things.) The later episodes see him slowly going off the rails and eventually winding up in rehab after a lonely, ketamine-fueled few weeks in Canada shooting a movie.

Like his friend John Mulaney, Davidson has an uncanny ability to find humor in some objectively unfunny situations. But he also has the ability to be quietly devastating in the tiny moments. After his mother has a panic attack after reading a fake headline about him dying, she explains that it was so upsetting to her because “when I saw the news on my phone, I realized like, that’s how it’s gonna happen. That’s how I’m gonna find out.” She’s almost resigned to the fact that she’ll outlive her son, so Davidson looks her in the eye and says, “Ma, I promise, I will never kill myself until after you’re dead.” Another episode centers around his desire to become a father; at first, he’s goofy and sweet with the eight-year-old girl he’s baby-sitting in all the ways we’d expect him to be, but he eventually messes it up, and when he has to confront the possibility that maybe he’s not quite ready for parenthood, he delivers this gut-punch: “Am I that crazy to think that I could take good care of something and love someone?” A dinner-table moment where he awkwardly, almost naively asks his 23-year-old sister if she’s sexually active is surprisingly heartwarming; his mental illness and substance abuse have led him to become pretty self-centered — that can happen when you’re forced to fight a daily battle against your own brain chemicals — but we see him genuinely trying to be better and almost sheepishly taking an interest in her life.

The best scene of the series, however, takes place in its penultimate episode, when Mulaney and Davidson have a frank conversation about their strikingly different public personas, their shared struggles with addiction and Mulaney’s real-life decision to hide his relapse from Davidson until he checked into rehab. This time, in the world of the show at least, it’s Davidson’s turn to go to rehab, and Mulaney, in an attempt to offer him reassurance, instead offers this dark, sad truth: “You’ll continue to be this bright, talented light that seems in crisis to everyone in the outside world, and we’ll all take care of you. And I’ll continue to be this seemingly okay guy, all buttoned-up, but inside having a fucking crisis all the time.” 

Eventually, they both agree that they don’t know how to do anything else and they “don’t much want to.” No one can claim that Davidson is a versatile actor, but he is extremely good at being Pete Davidson. Bupkis serves as a reminder that, on- or off-camera, that’s no easy feat — and it’s one he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for.

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