Religion is usually portrayed so inaccurately and superficially in pop culture that whenever I find a gem, I try to alert you to it.
My latest find is HBO’s series “Crashing,” which just began its second season. Comedian Pete Holmes plays himself in a fictionalized retelling of his early days on the New York City stand-up circuit. The show is co-produced by Judd Apatow.
I’d never heard of Holmes, or of “Crashing,” until I caught an interview with him a few weeks ago on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” He was so engaging, and so candid about his faith, that I went home and binge-watched the first season.
In the initial episode, we meet this younger version of Holmes as he’s trying to break into comedy. He’s a suburbanite who commutes to the city to perform late-night sets in gritty clubs where the audience typically consists of two or three drunks or insomniacs, and a handful of fellow aspiring comedians.
These gigs don’t pay. Holmes has to buy items from the bar or else hawk flyers on the street before managers will even let him go on stage.
His wife, Jess (Lauren Lapkus), teaches school to support them.
It’s an understatement to say that this embryonic Holmes is a clean comedian. He’s a born-again Christian who doesn’t smoke, drink or do drugs.
He dated Jess at the Christian college they both attended and where he studied to become a youth minister. She’s the only woman he has ever had sex with; he lost his virginity on their wedding night.
He’s so naïve that his fellow comics — a boisterous, cynical, profane lot — can’t decide whether he’s just very weird or whether religion is part of his comic shtick.
Then Holmes comes home early one day to find Jess in bed with one of her colleagues.
That quickly, Pete and Jess are getting a divorce. He’s broke. He’s jobless. He’s essentially homeless, sleeping in the living rooms and garages of acquaintances.
Thus “Crashing” looks at an evangelical Christian suddenly immersed in, and transformed by, a resolutely irreligious subculture.
You might call it the pilgrim goes to Sodom, by way of Gomorrah. It’s about what happens when spiritual ideals run face-first into carnal reality.
It’s about self-discovery.
Through his marital break-up, Holmes discovers how much he loves stand-up comedy, even though he’s not good at it yet: He loves it more than he loved his wife, which is why she cheated on him. The revelation is both painful and liberating.
Most resonant is that he discovers that his faith no longer fits neatly into a pre-programmed, sanitized box. The box has been smashed.
Through the first season and into the start of the second, which is unfolding now, his beliefs, assumptions and morals get tested and redefined as much as they get reinforced.
Whereas his Christian wife left him and his minister considers him target for pity and correction, the people who show him practical kindnesses are unbelievers.
Two of his early angels are comedians Artie Lange, a hard-living and not-so-recovered addict, and the relentlessly sacrilegious Sarah Silverman.
When Silverman, whom he barely knows, realizes he has no place to stay, she invites him to sleep on her sofa. She helps him land his first paying job in the business, as the warm-up comedian for Rachael Ray’s television show.
Holmes confesses that he has never watched her stand-up routines because she makes fun of Jesus.
“So, you’re a God person?” she says.
“Yes, I’m a God person.”
She smiles. “Aw,” she says, as if he’s just shown her a sweet video of kittens.
But that’s it. No lecture. No condescension. She accepts him for who he is.
Did I mention that the show is also just very funny? Not glib-funny, but witty, insightful and self-effacing. Holmes is a lovable goof.
“Crash” is not, however, for the squeamish or for pro-religion or anti-religion absolutists. Instead, it takes faith seriously enough to hold it up to examination, make it earn its way.
Holmes’ faith wavers, especially after a barroom conversation with magician Penn Jillette, an articulate atheist.
Unmoored from his previous verities, Holmes launches into the adolescent rebellion he bypassed before. He tries weed and cigarettes. He takes up cussing. He has a one-night stand.
It’s the clear-eyed Jess who rediscovers a strong, joyous faith.
In an episode set at the baptism of a family friend, she rejects both Holmes and her lover.
“I choose Jesus!” she cries, then flings herself beneath the water prepared for her friend.
She comes up beaming and declares, “He is risen!”
The Christians in “Crashing” are generous and quirky and confused and unfaithful and smart and angry and selfish and saintly. Sometimes they have more questions than answers. They keep evolving and even contradicting themselves.
In other words, they’re the real article. That’s why I enjoy this show.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.