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Crashing: A television series with powerful portraits of faith and humour

There exists a vast array of shows, usually lame comedies, about stand-up comedians: Their life, the business of trying to be funny for a living and the difference between life and life-as-a-joke. Ten-a-penny stuff.

Crashing, which returns to HBO (Sunday, 10:30 p.m.) for a second season, is different and getting better. In its first and mildly funny season, the core premise seemed more a gimmick than an interesting key ingredient – Pete Holmes stars as a version of himself, a clean-material comedian who tries to stay true to his conservative religious upbringing.

Conflicts and some laughter ensued in many episodes. But in the second season – it's easy to catch up and season one is available on HBO on-demand – Holmes's entire existence and central beliefs are challenged, to often uproarious and sometimes poignant results.

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Holmes's character, a former evangelical, sees stand-up comedy and laughter as a way to serve God. Now comes a crisis in his life and an unravelling. There is humour, obviously, in a religious man falling into debauchery, but there is more substance to the story than that. The question "what is the meaning of life?" hangs over the series like a fog. And if the answer to that question is "laughter," that's not enough.

Holmes's character is a charmer and you almost don't want him to be corrupted, but he is. His stark innocence is shocking and his inexperience is both beguiling and alarming. There are incidents involving real comedians – Whitney Cummings, John Mulaney, Sarah Silverman – that lead to strangely unsettling humour. That's because they don't so much mock his beliefs as they gaze in some awe at someone whose sincerity is authentic and so guileless it is beyond the reach of sarcasm and disdain.

Crashing is a peculiar kind of show. It's on HBO but it doesn't stand out as provocative, obligatory viewing. Rather, it stands as an example of a series that the premium cable environment allows to breathe and grow and develop.

In the first season the roots of the show were in Pete Holmes being slightly pathetic. After discovering that his wife had cheated, he was performing at The Boston, a comedy club in Manhattan, and only got to do five-minute sets in return for handing out flyers. And he worked part-time at an ice-cream store, an adult doing a teenager's job. His genial, clean humour kept him and the show going. Now the engine that drives it is a series of deft questions about faith and about being an honourable person without having faith in God. Neither hard-hitting nor groundbreaking, it's recommended as a funny and emotionally rewarding experience.

The Caregivers Club (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m. on CBC Docs POV) is another poignant and rewarding experience and not entirely distant from Crashing. The Full title is The Caregivers Club: The Private Lives of Dementia Caregivers. Love, Loss and Letting Go. Written and directed by Cynthia Banks, the documentary chronicles the situation of three families dealing with the pain, anger, frustration and rewards of caring for someone suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's disease. It's a series of intimate portraits, often painfully raw.

Karen takes care of her husband, Jack, and lovingly so, but has the bruises to indicate that he sometimes becomes violent. "I've made those wedding vows and I'm keeping them," she says. Dominic cares for his wife, Rafaella, reversing the caregiving role that she had for so long, in taking care of him and supporting him in his job. Barbara is taking care of her mother who has Alzheimer's. For Barbara the circumstance changes everything and has an impact on her husband and children. She is under constant strain and, she says, she worries she too will suffer from the disease, and in distress she says, "I'm next and who is going to caregive for me?"

We're told that 80 per cent of caregivers suffer from depression. And a perspective on the circumstance of caregivers is offered by occupational therapist Nira Rittenberg who provides advice and support, and consolation. When she compiles a list of all the obstacles the caregivers face, it is very, very long. This is a powerful documentary, unyielding in its focus on those who care, just as they must be unyielding in their devotion, no matter how much they carry.

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