When we last saw Marc Maron’s fictional counterpart, he collapsed on the floor of a studio, blowing a TV hosting gig because of a blossoming addiction to OxyContin. It was a bold move for Maron, which, until recently, has reveled in the comfort of its protagonist’s unexpected success, achieved relatively later in both the real and fictional performer’s lives. In the series as well as in real life, Maron is a prominent comedian and podcaster, known for a loose, confessional oratorical style that forges an unusual degree of intimacy between him, his audience, and his guests. Maron allows you to see the work behind his art, or an illusion thereof, and the stress that led to his professional breakthroughs after years of being in the shadows of friends and colleagues like Louis C.K.
Maron is one of the few celebrities who successfully scans as an every-person; his feelings of inadequacy in the face of other artists mirror what we all feel whenever we stack ourselves against our friends and neighbors. Maron’s palpable insecurity and vulnerability also intensify the comfort his character takes in what he does have. A pivotal portion of Maron’s persona is his past as a drug addict, as it informs his comedy, his podcast, and Maron with a subtle terror of relapse, of losing everything and returning to a hopeless state. The show’s fourth season finally mines that terror directly.
The season premiere starts with Maron opening his garage door from the inside like he does at the start of every episode, except this door belongs to a rentable storage unit, which, it becomes quickly apparent, he’s living in. Maron’s comfortable California suburban home has been squashed into these close, impersonal quarters. The hero has a hot plate, his record collection, his couch, and, most pitifully, an empty caulk bucket with a toilet seat attached—his “shit bucket,” to quote his quasi-friend and professional rival, Dave Anthony.
We learn that Maron’s relapse spiraled into a near-total obliteration of his life. He hasn’t updated his podcast, his primary source of income, in a year. He lost his house, alienated his friends and agent, sinking into a state of irritable unemployable-ness. His preferred brand of deodorant is now Lysol. His eyes are glassy, he’s still on OxyContin, lost in a haze, wandering to and from various acquaintances, looking for a way to recruit C.K. for an interview that would, he feels, resuscitate his career. He’s grown a long and strangely becoming beard, ratty and gray, which directs our focus on Maron’s creased and pained face. This new look is, in itself, a fabulous sight gag: Our protagonist resembles a hipster street rabbi, gone evocatively to seed.
Maron is clearly exhilarated by its hero’s fall, as if saying, “Well, we’re here now, there’s nothing left to fear.” As an artist, Maron appears to relish the idea of breaking his fictional self off from a path paralleling his own. In the two episodes screened for the press, Maron reveals a newfound presence as an actor, deepening the punchlines, which are almost entirely at his expense. The misery on Maron’s face as a doctor interviews him for entry into rehab is vivid and poignant, enriching the comedy of the hallucination he has of the doctor inexplicably teleporting to different locations within the hospital room.
Maron gets off the drugs and recovers his working-class-artist mojo, to an extent, riffing on the damage of the people in rehab with him. In a resonant joke, Maron is surrounded in the rehab wing by addicts young enough to be his children, subtly reaffirming the fear that he’s behind his own generation in terms of prestige and stability. Quiet little absurdisms bounce off one another, such as a guidance counselor’s creepy insistence on taping his meetings with Maron in the hopes of fashioning his own podcast.
Throughout its run, there’s been a certain pleasing yet perhaps limiting humility about Maron, which has been compared to the more formally daring Louie, because of the professional relationship their respective creators have with one another, as well as the similar themes they share of middle-aged comedians attempting to adjust to the mercenary trendiness of 21st-century life. Until now, Maron has been content to serve as Louie’s safer alternative, about a guy who may be really talented, rather than brilliant, who’s living a life of qualified comfort one day at a time. But now, a gauntlet appears to have been thrown, as Maron seems to be asking his character: How far can I push you, and, by extension, myself?