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Pete Davidson: Alive from New York premiered this week on Netflix. As a comedy, it's unique, and not always in the way of humour.

Marcus Price/Netflix

It’s back: Saturday Night Live returns this weekend (Saturday, NBC, Global, 11:30 p.m.). John Mulaney is the host and in the advance teasers he’s having weird, funny conversations with Pete Davidson.

We can’t know how this SNL will go in tackling the week’s events, because there’s a cornucopia of political material to ridicule. But Mulaney’s a reliable comic and host and his relationship with Davidson is now part of the strange folklore of SNL. In December of 2018, Davidson posted on social media what appeared to be suicidal thoughts. In January of 2019, he appeared on SNL with Mulaney beside him.

Apart from their stream of jokes on the Weekend Update segment, there seemed to be something else going on. Colin Jost remarked that he didn’t think the two were close pals, hanging out together. “Yeah, we do, but a lot of times it looks like I’m Pete’s lawyer,” Mulaney replied. “But for real, I’ve been spending time with Pete to try to show him that you can have a life in comedy that is not insane, a sober, domestic life.” Then in a moment that wasn’t funny at all, Mulaney said, “Pete, look at me. You are loved by many, and we are glad you are okay.”

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By a coincidence that is both odd and unnerving, Pete Davidson: Alive from New York, arrived this week on Netflix. As a stand-up comedy special it’s unique, and not always in the matter of humour. It’s unsettling, actually. In the barely one-hour show, Davidson is working out a lot of things that have happened to him, especially the events that led him into such a depressive state that people worried about him. Some of it is funny, some more pointedly furious than funny and some of it makes you want to tell Davidson, as Mulaney did, that everything is going to be okay.

It opens with a scathing story about Louis C.K. who, according to Davidson, tried to have him fired from SNL. The now-disgraced comedian took umbrage at Davidson smoking a joint as an episode of SNL ended and the cast was dispersing. In fact, he complained to SNL boss Lorne Michaels and Davidson got a very curious dressing-down from the boss.

Davidson’s lip-smacking pleasure in Louis C.K’s downfall is one of the strongest segments. Soon after, Davidson is rambling on about masturbation, men’s understanding of the vagina and his suspicion that certain gay men who hang out with straight women aren’t gay at all. It’s a pile-on of juvenile male humour, and you feel Davidson could do a lot better.

There is mildly funny material about dealing with babies: “I like babies. I micro-dose mushrooms, so I speak baby.” There are a lot of jokes about drugs, actually. But then Davidson’s extreme vulnerability begins to loom. The material is clearly not entirely honed and the forthright anger and self-deprecation is as fascinating as the genuinely humorous material. Essentially, he’s lost, bewildered by what happened to him.

What happened was a brief relationship with singer Ariana Grande. After they split, Grande was dismissive of the relationship and had a few things to say about Davidson, including remarks about his penis. She didn’t share with friends. She made the remarks public in an interview with Vogue. She was on the cover of Vogue that month. Davidson isn’t angry. He’s dumbfounded. “Can you imagine if I did that? My career would be over tomorrow,” he says less in anger than confusion. “If I spray-painted myself brown and hopped on the cover of Vogue magazine and just started [expletive] on my ex?”

He’s struggling to understand, as many people are, what can be said and what is unsayable in the current time. “My biggest fear is that I’m gonna get shot in the back of the head by like, a nine-year-old with a ponytail. And the last thing I’m gonna hear is, ‘Hashtag cancelled.’” What’s startling is that you know he means it. Grande’s fans went after him online with breathtaking ferocity. And it isn’t funny at all. Be careful what you laugh at, when you watch this comedy special. And this week’s SNL could be strangely piquant.

Also airing this weekend

Followers (streams on Netflix from Friday) is a vividly lurid and eye-popping melodrama from Japan. Directed by filmmaker Mika Ninagawa (Diner, No Longer Human) it’s all eye-popping colour and punchy dramatics. A famous fashion photographer Limi Nara (Miki Nakatani) has a strong feminist bent to her work and life. One day she accidentally makes a star of a young, aspiring actress Natsume Hyakuta (Elaiza Ikeda) with a single photo posted online. What unfolds is about social-media fame and lessons about superficiality. All done with amazing visual energy.

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Aging Well Suzuki Style is the title of The Nature of Things (Saturday, CBC NN, 7 p.m. and on CBC Gem). It’s all about getting old and, specifically, how David Suzuki is doing, at age 83. Very specifically, actually, given the battery of tests he undergoes.

Coronavirus (Saturday, Sunday CBC NN, 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye) is an Australian-made doc charting how the virus outbreak occurred and suggests an initial cover-up by Chinese authorities. Made mostly in secret, with interviews filmed on smartphones, it has Chinese activists and Australians trapped in the lockdown in China giving eyewitness accounts.

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