In a renowned clip from Almost Famous that made the internet rounds after his tragic passing, Philip Seymour Hoffman—playing canonical music journalist Lester Bangs—consoles a young music journalist disappointed by the realities of adulthood he’s learning the hard way. “Great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing,” Hoffman says. “And love disguised as sex and sex disguised as love.”
I’m not sure which disguise Marc Maron is adopting on “White Truck,” tonight’s episode of Maron on IFC, but throughout the series’ almost two seasons, Maron has remained as concerned as Depeche Mode is with questions of lust. Sometimes, he lusts after women; sometimes they lust after him. Sometimes he lusts after fame; sometimes others’ lust for it makes him hate them.
And sometimes Marc—an addict in recovery, mind you—seizes onto an idea or a person or a thing and goes whole-hog, diving into a new preoccupation headfirst. On the surface, “White Truck” is about Marc’s new hobby—vinyl records. It’s got all the standard elements of the Maron playbook—a snobby hipster looking down his nose at the old man trying desperately to stay hip, Marc overcompensating for his awkwardness by trying to belong so hard it hurts, ruminations on his age (based on everything we know about Marc, a vinyl midlife crisis is certainly feasible), semi-obscure cultural references, and the like.
Maron and his team want this episode to be about vinyl’s superiority—music is always a solid analogue for “hearing the pain better.” But instead, we get a static that distracts us. It’s white noise. The problem with “White Truck” is just that. What the heck is the white truck doing here?
There have been plenty of failed romances that play out with the perfect soundtrack—it’s better to burn out than fade away, right? But “White Truck’s” A and B sides are arrhythmic and dissonant. As he’s leaving the record store after another round of one-upsmanship with the clerk, Marc meets an alleged divorcée realtor who lies about her marital status and compliments Marc’s interior decorating skills. They have sex, making not-so-sweet music during an open house. Then it turns out she’s not actually divorced and Marc invents a worst-case scenario—a “murderous” angry husband. It winds up being accurate.
Despite acknowledging its inconsistencies this season, I seldom have a strong desire to criticize Maron for the writing. Even when it’s floundering, it’s more because the subject matter has run its course or the writers are struggling to approach a similar situation from a new angle. But this week’s episode—by veteran Jerry Stahl—shoehorns two ideas—Hoffman’s art and sex—into a partnership that hits all the wrong notes.
Even returning guest star Andy Kindler seems bored hearing about Marc’s latest relationship gaffe as they dig through the crates. “Not every encounter has to turn into some heinous soul-sucking drama,” he says.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it has to be said again that after nearly two full seasons, Marc Maron is still not comfortable with whether he’s the guy who “did a bad thing” or the guy yelling at the guy doing the bad things. If the stakes aren’t high, Marc’s usually not comfortable, and that seemed to be the case this week. Again, he’s caught in the middle, only this time he’s between two people—the realtor and her husband—and two plots in different time signatures. Eventually the counts overlap, but the bridge is as disappointing as the choruses that got us there.
One thing has become very clear to me: for a comedian, Marc doesn’t do “silly” well. Since last year, the show has faltered when it moves toward the carnivalesque. Last year’s Mexican drug dealers and dominatrices have been replaced with waffle-quaffing West Texans, Angeleño junkies, and, lately, ridiculous women.
Though it’s become a staple too heavily relied upon in the Maron catalogue, Marc has got “serious” down for the most part. But with two dozen episodes under his belt now and another failed experiment with sex and rock and roll (no drugs this week, though we got enough of them last week), he needs to learn to loosen up, drop the needle, and let it rock.
On screen and in life, plenty of relationship advice has been doled out over catalogued high-fidelity audio, but the records were the real plot here all along. Marc wants his record collection to tell the universe that music is important to him, but the music winds up being nothing more than the backing track to another unstable woman… and another cranky man. On Maron, in the words of Big Star, it’s “the same old thing…that we did last week.”
John Vilanova is a New York and Philadelphia based writer and academic currently serving as the managing editor of Philadelphia Style magazine. His work has appeared in publications including Paste, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and others. Follow him on Twitter.