Among an artist’s more difficult feats is to sell audiences his or her bona fides as a person with relatable everyday problems. Art concerned with the working-class almost always scans as disingenuous because the existence of the art itself represents transcendence—whether it’s imaginative, empathetic, or, at least, productive—that isn’t achieved by most people. When Charles Bukowski, say, wrote of his life as a bum, you firstly register the forceful poetry of his despair. Though remarkably shorn of artistic vanity, Louis C.K.’s work is most immediately notable for the razor-sharp incisiveness of his social observations. Maron, however, almost manages the feat of the celebrity-as-everyman because it actively wrestles with the fashions with which we compare ourselves to other people, and its behavioral conclusions aren’t encouraging. The series is engaging in its passive-aggressive humanism, which is to say that it’s some kind of feat of contradiction.
Creator-actor Marc Maron’s shtick, an expansion of his stand-up and, particularly, of his “WTF” podcast persona, is to revel in the fact that his famous comedy friends achieved success with far greater efficiency than he did, and that’s how he gets in our good graces. Maron is “the angry one” of his friends, which is really saying something in the comedy world; he’s the guy who can’t let anything go to his own preordained self-destruction—which is, come to think of it, also probably fairly standard of the comedy world. Playing a fictional variation of himself, a struggling comedian as well as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who rejuvenates his professional life miraculously through a DIY podcast, Maron cuts a strikingly convincing portrait of a beat-up guy who’s come out at the other end of a tunnel that somehow didn’t quite arrive at hell. Maron is 50, a fact of which the series often reminds us, and he’s enjoying that first whiff of success that ambitious people hope to smell by their late 20s or early 30s.
The first season ended on a note of qualified optimism, with Maron appearing to open up emotionally to his new girlfriend, Jen (Nora Zehetner), in a series of long duets that will be recognizable to anyone in a relationship grappling with a lover in the deep grips of self-loathing. The second season wastes little time exposing this happiness as a speed bump of incidental togetherness on the long life road that’s ultimately navigated alone. (It’s telling that there are no other regular cast members in the series besides Maron.) There are practical reasons for estranging Maron socially again, as he’s a sitcom hero who more or less can’t change until the series has a run its course. But Maron frequently exploits this contrivance as a means for combating the myth that our lives can magically change with only the merest application of a little can-do gumption.
That aversion to platitude is particularly illustrated by Maron’s frequent willingness to render himself a putz. As the star of a series named after him, the comedian still manages, consciously, to always be on the wrong end of the punchlines, and not in a fashion meant to engender endearment—a shrewd nuance that obviously serves to ensure his likeability. In the season premiere, Maron appears on The Walking Dead chat show, Talking Dead, as a career move with pointedly little interest in either series, only to stand back helplessly aghast as host Chris Hardwick and guest Michael Ian Black (both as themselves) filet him so mercilessly as to inadvertently initiate his breakup with Jen. Maron’s mom, Toni (Sally Kellerman), rolls into town more often this season, projecting a wounded confidence that speaks to both the origin and potential evolution of Maron’s litany of insecurities. She’s achieved a haunting ease with her disappointments that frequently threatens to upstage the presence of her son, who’s used to being upstaged.
Maron’s best episodes have a poignant weirdness that suggests Raymond Carver’s short stories, or perhaps even Robert Altman’s Carver adaptation, Short Cuts. In this season’s high point, Maron rediscovers a fetish for vinyl records, which leads to a car accident with a gorgeous housewife (Elaine Hendrix), sex, and then to a stalker situation with the housewife’s rogue-cop husband (Jamie McShane) that circles back again to the records. It’s a swift, deceptively intricate bit of plotting that subtly affirms what Maron is ultimately about: that man, despite his best intentions, is inescapably an island. The series continually proves a reformed addict’s worst fears to be true, only to show those fears to be unworthy, nevertheless, of resigned hopelessness. Maron portrays a war against self-pity that’s unusually resonant for its willingness to plumb the legitimately pitiful.