A ton of comedy series have pin-popped the grandiose illusion of fame, anatomizing the engorged egos, the lifestyle excesses, the codependent fan adoration, and the rampant pomposity that come with stardom. The long list of characters lampooned for their fame game includes Alan Brady on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Ted Baxter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the titular late-night host on “The Larry Sanders Show,” Jenna Maroney on “30 Rock,” and Valerie Cherish on “The Comeback.” Like vampires, they need you to invite them in, just so they can bask in your worship.
“Maxxx,” produced in Britain by All3Media but licensed here by Hulu, is ferocious in its mockery of fame and the craving for it. The flip, funny six-episode series, premiering Tuesday, gives us a washed-up boy-band star, the titular Maxxx, who’s desperate to make a comeback and win back his supermodel ex (played by real supermodel Jourdan Dunn). Like the list of TV characters above, he’s a narcissist defined by his hunger for stardom. No one cares about Maxxx anymore, but he’s so starved for applause, adoration, and money he will do anything — including an excruciating threesome with a music mogul and his girlfriend — to get back in the limelight.
The show is written by O-T Fagbenle, who also stars as Maxxx. Best known here for his more serious turn as June’s husband on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Fagbenle plays it just right. It’s obvious that Maxxx is repulsive — a guy who tries to pick up women in a sex-addicts meeting, who tries to turn a funeral service into a career vehicle, who blows every chance he gets by taking too many pills. At points, he comes across like a Sacha Baron Cohen character, so stupid you have to laugh. But then Fagbenle makes sure there’s something sympathetic about Maxxx, too. We see a flashback of his Black father (his mother was white) advising him, “The only way for a Black man to stay safe is to become famous.” Behind his self-regard and his habit of referring to himself in the third person, we see his affection for his adopted teen son, Amit (Alan Assad). And he appears to be developing honest feelings for his new handler, Tamzin (Pippa Bennett-Warner).
Ultimately, we understand that Maxxx is essentially searching for love, but trying to find it through magazine covers and dated dance moves. Tamzin recognizes the genuine man inside Maxxx, and she pushes him to throw away his boy-band sound and go with his more authentic acoustic material. But while she sits on one shoulder giving sane advice, the head honcho, Don Wild (played in perfect over-the-top fashion by Christopher Meloni), sits on the other shoulder pushing Maxxx toward spectacle, audience pandering, and ultimately self-destruction. Even when Maxxx is at his worst, grabbing the mic from a dead man’s mother while she eulogizes her son in church, using Kanye’s “Imma let you finish” line, you still root for him to find his way out of the madness.
Fagbenle — whose script is nicely layered with in-jokes including some Wes Anderson bits — appears to be having a good time playing Maxxx, lapsing in and out of boy-band singing as he delivers his lines. If we root for Maxxx at moments, it’s not because Fagbenle has rounded any of the edges of his character. Meloni, too, appears to be enjoying himself as a man with dyed black hair whose goal in life is to “move units,” even if that means the performer in question needs to die to get media attention. Bennett-Warner stands out as a Black woman who is constantly getting racial stereotypes and presumptions thrown at her. Some of the humor in “Maxxx” is buffoonish and kooky, but most of it is of the cringe persuasion.
And Assad is a treat. His Amit is an innocent, despite his father’s decadence, and he develops a crush on a gender-fluid teen but doesn’t quite know how to make a move. He is exactly the spoonful of sweetness this tart show needs.
Starring: O-T Fagbenle, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Christopher Meloni, Alan Assad, Helen Monks, Jourdan Dunn
On: Hulu, premieres July 28.