The Jewish Rapper Who Would be a Mensch


As “peak TV” grows more niche, the medium has become more diverse in setting and subject matter, and for the better. This raises a question about audience investment: Can a viewer with no interest in a show’s milieu — say, the world of rap — possibly care about it?

An easy answer is that character-driven TV shows are the solution; if we’re interested in the characters, we’re absorbed in their storylines regardless of their vocations. Characters employed in some occupations have always been compelling, like those featured in the continuously growing “Law And Order” franchise, the nth season of the medical soap opera drama “Grey’s Anatomy” and any crime show (“The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Weeds”). “The Office” shifted the focus from the bad guys to characters many of us can more readily identify with: the employees of a quotidian workplace, in this instance a branch office of a paper wholesaler.

Which brings me to “Dave,” starring Dave Burd, a show produced by FXX and available on Hulu, just renewed for a second season. Can The Jewish Week’s resident culture kvetch be touched by a show that is beyond what he knows? (I know, there is much competition for the role.)

The show is about a white middle-class Jewish rapper with hip-hop talents who wants to be both a star (rapper moniker: Lil Dicky) and a regular person (name from bris: Dave). He’s the kind of person who calls his parents before cashing out his bar mitzvah money 15 years after the celebration to pay a famous hip-hop artist to collaborate with him on a song. Dave calls his parents out of respect; Lil Dicky hands the money over. Dave worries he was scammed after being ghosted by a would-be connection who promised to deliver a collaboration with a more established artist; Lil Dicky rips it in the studio with the rapper YG.

He calls his parents about money, and his father, in an exchange about technology and new means of information sharing and financial income (Dave mentions the 15 million views of his YouTube videos), asks the question every dad asks, “But why can’t you profit off all those views?”

With the affect of a nice Jewish Boy, Dave’s character fuels a classic fish-out-of-water story, with Dave swimming in a pool with more settled and sure-of-themselves people. I couldn’t stop watching. “Transparent” focuses squarely on L.A. Jewish culture (and raises the bar on the genre), juggling that very location-specific culture with Judaism. Being Jewish in Los Angeles isn’t a focal point in “Dave,” but the show does humorously references it from time to time.

Dave is successful in his music career, but he is unable to capitalize on it. His music videos get millions of hits, his tweets go viral and he even pulls off social media coups with parodies of Jim Carrey in “The Mask.” But he attracts attention that leaves his rapping peers unimpressed.

I see myself in Dave because he’s grappling with not falling into the trap of being someone he isn’t. Whether the character is mild-mannered Dave (trying to be a nice guy and not hurtful to anyone around him) or the rapper Lil Dicky (trying not to be too much a part of rap culture in a way that would seem inauthentic), I identify with him; I too am often the occupant of rooms where I’m the minority and face a similar dilemma. Do I try to fit in to the world around me or stay true to myself?

I find myself rooting for Dave and his quest to upgrade from being a “YouTube Rapper” to something more “serious.” He rolls with a ragtag posse: a childhood friend turned sound engineer, a roommate turned manager and a girlfriend turned ex-girlfriend. And there are the minor celebs — rappers Trippie Redd, Benny Blanco, Ot Genasis and Marshmello — who all make appearance in the show, and now in my Wikipedia search history.

Believe it or not, “Dave” actually takes on some serious issues, albeit with bizarre and sidesplitting results. There is the episode about GaTa, a friend of Dave’s and hype man for Lil Dicky, who suffers from bipolar disorder; in a flashback scene, he freaks out in a mall sneaker store and is taken into custody by security guards and later learns of his disorder from a doctor. It becomes clear to Dave why GaTa made the perfect front man — it’s his disorder-induced high energy. The actor who plays GaTa is actually bipolar, and the plotline raises awareness of mental health issues in communities of color.

The plot, which makes use of humor when you least expect it, moves in unexpected directions. In a poignant, mid-season episode, Dave realizes that his childhood friends were laughing at him, not with him. The penultimate episode is about him losing his girlfriend at her sister’s wedding, when he is too distracted by a career move and doesn’t help her with her speech. Ultimately, “Dave” is about Dave chasing opportunity, only to lose the most important thing in his life because of that pursuit.

The finale is an anxiety-fueled hallucinogenic dream that comes when Lil Dicky is negotiating with a large record label. It lands with me, despite the Grand Canyon-like chasm between Dave and me, let alone Lil Dicky and me. 

Eli Reiter’s column appears monthly.