What to Watch Verdict
The show's writing is as thoughtful and merciless as ever but it continues to tell Dave's story with a seeming aversion to giving audiences what they want — or what the writers think they want, anyway.
🎤 Burd's juxtaposition between the triumph of his ad campaign rap and freestyle flop in front of his peers feels like two perfectly synchronized performances.
🎤 Ko's sly smile as Lil Dicky crashes feels like a perfect and cruel — but justified — schadenfreude towards her friend after years of being minimized and underappreciated.
🎤 The show seems to aggressively avoid making choices that seem or would be perceived as conventional, but it also misses some great opportunities in the process.
This post contains spoilers for Dave.
Check out our last review here.
At the beginning of “Ad Men,” Lil Dicky (Dave Burd) is third in line among XXL Magazine’s freshman class for 2021, a rare honor from a magazine that has the authority to anoint hip-hop’s next superstar. Painting a rosy portrait of his upbringing and education, he follows Lil Yachty and Desiigner, who share stories of the struggles that led them to make music; whether or not his or theirs are the stories they actually told, Lil Dicky was actually part of XXL’s freshman class in 2016 with these same performers, as well as Denzel Curry and Dave East, who also appear in the episode. But Dave is decidedly less interested in that particular moment in Lil Dicky’s history than a dramatization of Burd’s real-life tenure at an ad agency where he first met Emma (Christine Ko), an experience that paved the way for his music career and eventually sets the stage for another humiliation in this fictional timeline.
A decade earlier, Dave and Emma are office drones at a boutique advertising agency, toiling over thankless campaigns while they plot alternate careers: although he hasn’t yet created his alter ego, Dave aspires to become a superstar rapper, while Emma dreams of becoming a director while talking herself out of it in the next breath. But after landing the opportunity to develop a campaign for Mountain Dew, they pull an all-nighter — Dave’s first — to create a presentation that will knock the soda giant’s representatives’ socks off, culminating with Dave rapping for the executives while Emma projects catchy imagery on the televisions behind him. Although they’re temporarily discouraged when their boss awards the campaign to his favored associates, the duo crashes the presentation anyway and Dave, performing for the very first time in front of an audience, absolutely blows them away.
Listening to “Blood on the Leaves” for inspiration, Dave molds his then still-imaginary rap career off of West’s — most of all the absolute egocentrism that he believes is essential to becoming a success. (There’s also an odd serendipity to the fact that this episode so heavily focuses on the excitement of a Kanye album, the same week that West announces the release of a new one.) But after watching so much of Season Two, what becomes more clear is how this story is meant to foreshadow the way he will increasingly treat his friends and confidantes on the road to this projected “superstardom,” starting with Emma, who was at one point a very equal partner in their personal and professional relationship. Slightly less hard-edged or cynical back in 2013, she deflects his insensitivity more easily without it making an impact; but we also see the microaggressions — some of which she echoes herself as a defense mechanism, or to “get along” with her white coworkers — that undoubtedly wore her down over the intervening years.
The show doesn’t have enough time to fully unpack what prompts her to second guess the notion of a directing career, but we definitely see reasons how and why she becomes discouraged, starting with the fact that no one particularly encourages her when she verbalizes these ambitions. In fact, Denzel Curry broaches the subject of her becoming his videographer during the XXL shoot and she insists she isn’t filming Burd “for real.” But after a world-class pep talk from GaTa, who sees every experience as an opportunity to grow his “gander,” she becomes momentarily emboldened to volunteer to direct one of her friend’s music videos.
Meanwhile, Lil Dicky enters crisis mode when the producers of XXL segment refuse to release the beat over which he and his fellow freshman class honorees are meant to rap, and he of course remains woefully shackled by writer’s block. Emma comes to his rescue by flirting with the DJ in order to get the beat, but the advantage proves to be for naught when Dave East refuses to rap to it and they replace it with a more uptempo track. One imagines this is a real and constant problem for rappers; some beats are simply incompatible with their verses or rhyme styles, and you have to be sympathetic for Burd for failing to seize his moment and perform in the way that he has in the past. But also, there continues to be an interesting imbalance in the show between the rapper’s burgeoning success and his aptitude for squandering it or shooting himself in the foot; those scenes in the pilot and Season One finale where he blew away a room full of strangers and demonstrated his mettle as a lyricist are fast becoming distant memories, and it’s disappointing.
You can’t help but understand the dilemma that the showrunners face: if he becomes a superstar, does that mean the show’s over? Or is that just cliched wish-fulfillment? With three more episodes left, one presumes he won’t magically turn around this downward trajectory overnight — which is appropriate. But Lil Dicky is an extremely good rapper and lyricist, and now he has proven that he’s also a funny and compelling actor. So what does success look like for that real person, who has diversified his skill set and opened up some really different, intriguing opportunities? “Ad Man” shows both an exhilarating high for Dave Burd, and a devastating failure for Lil Dicky; also it offers a triumph of acting and some extremely skillful, complex writing. Which brings us to the realization that Dave continues to be one of the best shows on television — but at some point, you wish that the show would stop making choices to anticipate, or contradict, what audiences might expect, and simply tell the story that feels right and true for Lil Dicky, both as a rapper and a real person.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.
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