“And The Upstairs Neighbor” S1 / E14
- C Community Grade
I don’t know if you heard, since it’s been ages since we last talked in this space, but I’m done with this show. I’m done with it like yesterday’s news. I’m tossing it out, along with all of my hopes that it would live up to its potential or become the next great multi-camera sitcom or whatever. Yes, I’ll love Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs until the day I die, but the show around them is an occasionally racist piece of trash, and it doesn’t know when to leave well enough…
Oooh… Jennifer Coolidge? Well, goddammit.
Jennifer Coolidge is one of those actors out of the Christopher Guest improv comedy troupe, at least in my head. She’s had a great, long career, in which she’s taken roles in a lot of shitty, shitty things and made them funny just because she’s a funny person. She reminds me, in a lot of ways, of Jane Lynch, about whom I felt roughly similar until Glee made her a household name. (And now she probably needs to be freed from Glee, which has run out of anything to do with her.) But where Lynch plays aggressive and weirdly sexual really, really well, Coolidge plays just a little bit dumb and weirdly sexual well. It’s a blend that would work well on 2 Broke Girls, and when I heard that she was guest starring on the show, I hoped that it would be the next step in the show’s endless retool. Or, at least, I hoped that when I heard that news a few months ago. Going into tonight’s episode, I’d forgotten she was even going to be on the show.
The episode—written by Michael Patrick King, I might as well point out—is a fairly classic example of an “episode 14.” It’s the first episode produced after the “back-nine” pickup, when the people who make the show are relatively certain that they’re going to be around for a while to come, and they’re already feeling a little wistful for the days when they were the scrappy little show that could. (I doubt anybody ever consciously writes to this tone, but it’s one that often comes through in episode 14s.) These tend to be episodes that are a bit reflective of where the show and characters have come so far, and they’re shows that will often introduce new arcs, since many series will construct the first 13 episodes to reach some sort of climax, in case that’s all they ever get to produce. (For this reason, one of the weirdest episode 14s ever produced is that of the first season of 24, where it’s clear the producers are thrilled to have more TV to make but are also a bit horrified by the thought of having to fill another 11 hours with action escapades.)
After King seemed so damn dedicated to that fucking diner at last week’s TCA session for the show, I was half expecting the entire show to turn into, like, the Han and Earl Show, but the series remains as resolutely unsure what to do with anything that’s not the two women at its center that it was kind of a shock to see an episode in which Oleg, Han, and Earl combined for about 90 seconds of screen time (and Earl got one of the best lines). Make no mistake: The regressive stereotypes are the very worst thing about the show (runner-up: the complete inability to tell a story), but in many episodes they’re barely present. It’s in episodes like that where the show mostly settles down and can be kind of entertaining, if you like this sort of thing. (And I mostly do.)
Anyway, the Coolidge character is fairly reflective both of the show’s problems with ethnic stereotypes and a way it could use them going forward—thus allowing it to both have its cake and eat it too. Again, I don’t really expect the show to do this, since the creator is a guy who doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with what’s on screen, but since he wrote this very episode, he’s clearly capable of doing more with these characters. He just chooses not to. That makes this episode pretty good and the whole show a lot worse, if that makes any sense. Anyway, Coolidge is the upstairs neighbor of Max and Caroline. She moves in after the original one dies (he was dead for two weeks before anyone found out), and Caroline decides she and Max should get to know the others in the building. Coolidge clomps around and listens to the BeeGees, and Max decides to get hostile before the problem gets out of control. (I’m not ashamed to admit I laughed every time at the contents of Max’s threatening note.) Naturally enough, this leads to Coolidge in the Max and Caroline apartment, and then it leads to Max and Caroline suspecting she’s a prostitute because this is TV, and that’s what you do.
Coolidge is interesting because she seems like she should be problematic, given this show’s m.o. She’s got a thick Polish accent that occasionally makes her hard to understand, and she’s doing that thing Coolidge does where you suspect she’s pretty smart under an exterior that doesn’t seem immediately intelligent. But King and Coolidge take the character somewhere interesting: They make her both immune to the main characters and give her an inner life of her own. She’s saving up to buy a lake house back in Poland. That’s why she’s in the U.S. She owns a cleaning business. And she’s wonderfully weird, having all-hours sleepovers and keeping a porch swing in her living room. On the one hand, she could be a stereotype—that accent! On the other hand, she’s someone who’s got her own thing going on, someone who’s funny because she’s such a specific character, not a lazy accent gag with legs.
Now, the storytelling here isn’t anything to write home about. On a joke level, this was probably one of the show’s stronger outings, but it mostly fell apart once Max and Caroline decided Coolidge was a hooker. Why did they decide this? Mostly because the show required them to. And then, of course, Coolidge said a bunch of things that made her sound like a hooker, but it turned out her job was really innocuous, something the girls only found out after accusing her of being a prostitute. There were plenty of jokes about Coolidge’s employees being down on all fours and about Caroline thinking she had herpes, and that generally dragged the final act down, just when the story might have really gotten rolling. One of the biggest problems with 2 Broke Girls has always been that it’s, to be technical about it, lazy as balls. This is just another manifestation of that. Instead of really pushing for a new kind of story, King goes with the one we’ve seen before because it lets him make a bunch of easy sex jokes.
But I kind of liked the scenes that were just the girls and Coolidge, all the same, particularly that final one where they sat on the porch swing and watched movies in 3D. There’s a core sweetness to 2 Broke Girls that befits the show when it stops trying so hard to push the envelope or be super edgy. If this were a few weeks ago, I’d be hopeful that the Coolidge character represented a new direction for the show, a new way for it to develop supporting characters. Now that I’ve heard King say he’s got no such intentions, I’ll look at this as an intriguing potential evolutionary path that was abandoned, in favor of making the show as hacky as possible.
- The Week in Terrible Supporting Characters: Oleg only turns up in the cold open, when the girls decide to start harassing him. It’s not very good. Earl gets in one good line about whether Coolidge is a prostitute. Han is mostly just here to deliver one line of exposition. It’s hard to believe King thinks he can do awesome things with these characters, given how little he uses them and how embarrassed the show seems about them in general.
- Some of Max and Caroline’s other neighbors practice S&M, but of the form that lets the one in the leash answer the door when people come knocking.
- Just briefly, I thought the last episode (the one Brandon covered) was pretty bad, but I was glad to get his perspective on it. I sometimes felt like I was insane when I thought this show had elements worth building a better show around, and it was nice to find someone else who felt that way. (I’d still love to liberate Dennings and Behrs and put them in a better sitcom, but I’m enough of a realist to know that will never, ever happen.)