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Pete Davidson is an endearing work in progress in 'Bupkis'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The comic, actor and former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Pete Davidson stars as a somewhat autobiographical, sometimes exaggerated version of himself in a new series called "Bupkis." His mother and grandfather are played respectively by Edie Falco and Joe Pesci. And each episode of "Bupkis" is sprinkled with guest stars. It's now streaming on Peacock. And our TV critic, David Bianculli, has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Three years ago, Pete Davidson starred in a somewhat fictionalized version of his life in the movie "The King Of Staten Island." He played a character, Scott Carlin, who does a lot of drugs, still lives with his mother as a young adult and who remains traumatized by the death of his firefighter father on 9/11. In "Bupkis," this new eight-part series from Peacock, he's covering the same ground. Only this time he's playing himself, Pete Davidson, in much the same way Larry David plays a version of himself on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "Bupkis" is created for TV by Davidson, his "King Of Staten Island" co-writer Dave Sirus and by Judah Miller. The season arc covers Pete hanging with his entourage, interacting with or disappointing his family and going in and out of rehab.

Some sequences are comically exaggerated, like an action parody of "The Fast And The Furious." Others, the better ones, are low-key and intimate, as when Pete shares a meal at a diner with his grandfather and confesses that he's tired of how he's portrayed by the media. The grandfather is played by Joe Pesci in his best comic role since "My Cousin Vinny."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BUPKIS")

PETE DAVIDSON: (As Pete Davidson) I got to change it up. You know, I got to change the way people see me. People think I'm, like, a joke for some reason.

JOE PESCI: (As Joe Larocca) They see you as a joke because you are a joke. You act like a [expletive] joke. You run around like a kid, and you're not a kid anymore. You're a man.

DAVIDSON: (As Pete Davidson) Yeah, but I'm doing good careerwise. I mean, you know, Hypebeast called me a voice of a generation.

PESCI: (As Joe Larocca) I don't think that was a compliment.

BIANCULLI: Pete's grandfather is undergoing chemo treatments for cancer, and the prognosis isn't good. This allows for many scenes where Pete spends time with his grandfather, getting to know him better. They're touching scenes, even when they're funny. And that's also true when Pesci shares the screen with Edie Falco, who plays his daughter, Pete's mother. She, too, is very, very good here. She's also surprisingly convincing in flashback scenes going back 20 years or more. And when she's on screen with Pesci, watching the stars of "The Sopranos" and "Goodfellas" play off each other is a true treat. In this scene, Falco's Amy visits her dad's house to take him for his latest treatment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BUPKIS")

PESCI: (As Joe Larocca) I don't need you to take me to the hospital either.

EDIE FALCO: (As Amy Davidson) I know I don't need to. Why should you go by yourself?

PESCI: (As Joe Larocca) Because I don't want anybody seeing me like that.

FALCO: (As Amy Davidson) God forbid someone sees you in a moment of weakness, it'll shatter the illusion. Listen, I'm a big girl. I want to spend as much time with my dad as I can. So will you stop being such a jerk, and let's get out of here?

PESCI: (As Joe Larocca) Listen, where I come from, you don't talk about it. You don't complain about it. It's your time to go, you just go. So that's what it's about.

FALCO: (As Amy Davidson) You have my permission to die.

PESCI: (As Joe Larocca) Thank you.

FALCO: (As Amy Davidson) I would like to spend a little bit of time with you before that, if that is all right. So please, can we get out of here?

BIANCULLI: The story requires Davidson to do some actual serious acting here, and he's up to it. But he also surrounds himself with very strong support in every installment, not just his top-line co-stars but a roster of guest stars drawn from many different corners of pop culture. "Everybody Loves Raymond"'s Ray Romano and Brad Garrett are here. So are Machine Gun Kelly and Method Man and Jane Curtin, Al Gore and even, from Davidson's old "SNL" tenure, Kenan Thompson and John Mulaney, who appears as himself, a fellow drug addict, to let Pete know what to expect from rehab. Since Mulaney just dropped his own Netflix stand-up special talking about his addictions, it's a funny scene with a lot of serious subtext.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BUPKIS")

JOHN MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) Look, here's what's going to happen. You're going to go to this rehab. You'll stay - what's the usual stay, 28 days? You'll stay about six, seven days.

DAVIDSON: (As Pete Davidson) Yeah.

MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) You'll either leave because they ask you to or because, I don't know, they won't let you smoke in the hospital or something.

DAVIDSON: (As Pete Davidson) Yeah.

MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) Some disagreement. You'll continue to be this bright, talented light that seems in crisis to everyone in the outside world. We'll all take care of you. And I'll continue to be this seemingly OK guy, all buttoned up, but inside having a [expletive] crisis all the time.

DAVIDSON: (As Pete Davidson) Well, John, I don't know how to do anything else.

MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) Neither do I.

DAVIDSON: (As Pete Davidson) I don't much want to.

MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) Neither do I.

BIANCULLI: "Bupkis" uses music very inventively - not only the hip-hop that Davidson blasts constantly in his earbuds, but oldies, too. You may never hear "This Magic Moment" again without thinking of this series, no matter how hard you try. And director Jason Orley films the rehab sequences in black and white, another nice touch that works. The entire season of "Bupkis" presents Pete Davidson - at least this TV version of him - as a work in progress and hopefully, maybe, a guy who's finally on the right path. Whether that turns out to be prophecy or self-delusion, this part of the journey, as depicted in "Bupkis," is both endearingly self-deprecating and reliably entertaining.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed "Bupkis," starring Pete Davidson. It's streaming on Peacock. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as the CDC ends the COVID-19 public health emergency, psychologist James Jackson reminds us that millions of long COVID sufferers are experiencing impaired brain function and mental health issues. He says they're getting too little attention from the medical establishment. He'll offer some practical advice about long COVID. His new book is called "Clearing The Fog." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "BLUES R US")

GROSS: If you want to keep up with what's on our show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "BLUES R US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.