How ‘Dave’ Delivered the Best Television Episode of the Year
Photo source: Ray Mickshaw/FX

How ‘Dave’ Delivered the Best Television Episode of the Year

‘Hype Man,’ the show’s breakout…

Dave, FXX’s semi-autobiographical comedy about Dave “Lil Dicky” Burd’s pursuit of hip-hop glory, wrapped its first season last night as one of the most-watched new comedies in the network’s history. On the surface, a White rapper landing a prestige-adjacent show — let alone one executive produced by Kevin Hart and Scooter Braun, among others — is a testament to the privilege that many White creators enjoy, even when participating in a culture they did not create. But Dave succeeded creatively by treating its protagonist as just one character in an ensemble, delivering strong moments by bringing others to the foreground.

In fact, Dave’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t the 5 million viewers it averaged each episode, or its ability to snag guest appearances from Young Thug, YG, Charlamagne Tha God, and others. It was delivering an urgent conversation about mental health in the Black community.

The fifth episode, “Hype Man,” appears to focus on Burd’s anxiety about the biggest gig of his young career: opening for Meek Mill. However, the story soon reveals itself to be about GaTa (pronounced like “gator”), Burd’s real-life friend and hype man, and his struggle with bipolar disorder. Through flashbacks, the episode depicts in unflinching detail how the condition has affected GaTa’s life, from its early manifestations to the moment he’s forced to open up about it in the present. It illustrates the highs of GaTa’s mania and the crushing lows of his depression — along with the shame and stigma he carries.

And it’s all rooted in the rookie actor’s real experiences.

“I was bipolar for a while,” says Davionte “GaTa” Ganter, noting that he was officially diagnosed 10 years ago. “But over all the years of traveling, touring, and always being on the go, I didn’t even know it until I had a manic episode.”

On a show that had already treated viewers to cringe-heavy comedy and in-depth descriptions of Dave’s surgically repaired penis, the weight of the episode was completely unanticipated. It cemented GaTa, who up to that point had been all unflappable confidence and inextinguishable energy, as the show’s emotional anchor and breakout star. But it also established Dave’s depth beyond its quirks.

“There are a few different turning points in the season where it gets really heavy and emotional,” Burd says. “This was the first of its kind — and I think it was the most surprising version.”

As a significant part of Burd’s real life — the two have been friends since 2013, when Burd’s and Tyga’s mutual manager introduced them — Ganter was always going to be part of Dave’s universe, so Burd made it a point to approach Ganter and his family about weaving this intimate detail into the show’s narrative. “It’s one of my best friends on the other end of it,” Burd says. “The idea of using this story and letting him down would’ve been heartbreaking for me.”

Initially, the idea faced some resistance. “I was worried about how people would judge me,” Ganter says, “but once I realized that there was nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about, and that I would be helping people, that’s when I knew it was all good.” Conversations with Saladin K. Patterson, a writer and executive producer on Dave, gave Patterson the crucial material he needed to craft an episode that was both true to life and emotionally affecting.

“We need to shine a light on [mental health] so we can see the blind eye we turn to it. We don’t talk about it in terms of needing help — and we certainly don’t talk about it in terms of masculinity or in the world of hip-hop.”

The key to “Hype Man” — as well as the quality that gives it such surprising heft — is its structure. In the episode, when Burd asks his friend to become his hype man, it prompts a series of flashbacks that give viewers their first sense of GaTa’s past, and how his mental health struggle robbed him of a similar opportunity with L.A. rapper Pacman da Gunman. Being removed from Pacman’s tour bus for being too energetic, having a manic episode while shopping for sneakers with his mother, waking up strapped to a hospital bed, then breaking down in tears: Each new scene gives you more perspective, turning a comic-relief motormouth into a nuanced, complex human being.

Ultimately, when a medication slip-up leaves GaTa sluggish during rehearsal, he discloses his condition to his friends — a moment that, like the rest of the episode, is based on moments from Ganter’s actual life.

“We were rehearsing for a show and he was very lethargic and seemingly fucked up; I thought he was on drugs,” Burd recalls. “There wasn’t a moment [as on the show] where I was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I’m bipolar,’ but he did explain that it was the medication he took.”

From the visceral humiliation to the wavering voice and stream of tears, Ganter turns in a legitimately moving performance. But as the actor is quick to point out, it wasn’t a performance at its core. “I just had to take a moment to really reflect on everything that I’ve been through,” he says. “All the sad things, all the happy things. All of that emotion has built up in me. It was a lot, but I’m glad I took it there on camera.”

Ganter may be proud of his decision to share his story with the world now, but his early apprehension is understandable. “There’s a stigma around being bipolar and mental health issues,” he says. “Especially in the Black community.” Burd admits he wasn’t the most aware of this stigma before learning his friend was bipolar, but learned just how deep it runs while working on Dave. “I knew I hadn’t seen it addressed often in Black media,” he says, “but I wasn’t fully aware that it was so overly stigmatized until Saladin broke that down to me in the writers room.”

Patterson, who left Vanderbilt University’s graduate psychology program to pursue comedy writing, thought to acknowledge that stigma by showing how others treated GaTa before his diagnosis. “We need to shine a light on that so we can see the blind eye we turn to it,” he says. “We don’t talk about it in terms of needing help — and we certainly don’t talk about it in terms of masculinity or in the world of hip-hop.”

“Hype Man” first aired at a dark time: March 25, nearly a week after much of the United States was put on lockdown due to the spread of Covid-19. People were newly stuck in isolation, constantly bombarded with a deluge of mostly bad news, none of which is good for anyone’s state of mind. With the nation advised to quarantine as a defensive measure, television, in its many forms, became a salve. “I don’t think it could’ve aired at a more perfect time, when we’re all in isolation, just thinking,” Ganter says of the episode.

While Patterson is reluctant to embrace the idea that Dave benefited from the pandemic while lives and livelihoods are being lost — “It’s just TV,” he says — he acknowledges that people having time to tune in and discuss is unavoidable: “Because we’re all in a situation where we feel out of our element, the fact that we had an episode that was so much about being out of your element resonated.”

Since the response to “Hype Man” has been almost universally positive, Dave’s creators hope any extra attention will go toward destigmatizing mental health in the Black community and beyond. “I hope it really connects with people to the point where they think they can open up more and talk about having mental health disorders,” Ganter says. He’s received overwhelmingly positive feedback (“Fucking movie stars like Olivia Wilde are tweeting about how GaTa’s performance was Emmy-worthy,” Burd says), including from people who personally related to his story. Ganter recalls a woman who recently approached him while he was at PetSmart. She began crying, revealing that she had been suicidal before his story helped her push forward.

“This was on 120th and Crenshaw, in South Central Los Angeles, where I was raised,” he says, ever earnest. “So a Black woman coming up to me, in my community — down the street from my momma’s house — that really let me know that I was touching people.”