This is the sort of thing I say that everybody immediately proves me wrong on, but I think the thing underlying most great TV comedies is affection. Even on something as misanthropic as Seinfeld, the four characters at the show’s center had a certain affection for each other. I mean, yes, there are certain great TV comedies that have cold little hearts and don’t seem to have a lot of love for any of their characters—it won’t surprise you to learn that many of them are British shows—but I think for a show to run for any length of time, there needs to be a central warmth toward the people at the show’s center.
One of the problems with the early episodes of 2 Broke Girls was that the show’s supporting characters, awful as they were, were also almost always the butt of the joke. The second and third episodes, especially, seemed designed almost entirely to show off how awesome Max was and how much everybody around her should be thankful just to occupy the same space as her. And while I like both Max and Kat Dennings’ portrayal of her, that’s rarely a good way to build a comedic universe. It mostly invites the show to side with Max as she smugly makes fun of everybody around her, then asks us to laugh along. And that’s not just unfunny; it’s mean-spirited, something American sitcoms have rarely done well. (And the few that have done it well have mostly been canceled quickly—see the early ‘80s Buffalo Bill for an example.) If you set aside all of the problems with racial caricatures, if you take away Han’s accent, you’ve still got a character who seemingly exists just for Max to pick on him. And it’s hard to laugh along with that for too long.
If 2 Broke Girls becomes everything I think it could become, I doubt that “And The ‘90s Horse Party” will rank high on many “all-time” episodes lists. But I think it will very easily be marked as a turning point. For one thing, there was very little egregiously awful about this episode. Han’s still got that accent, and there’s a line about the word “wad” that made me cringe, both for how far away I could see it coming from and for how dumb it was. Oh, and Oleg is still a sexually harassing creep, who gets away with far more than any real person would and is supposed to be vaguely charming for it. (He’s not.) But for the most part, this was an episode where the legitimately awful stuff could be confined to about a minute of screentime. This may not seem like much, but it at least shows that the series is learning.
What’s more, the stuff that’s usually awful wasn’t that bad tonight. Han’s jokes were less about him being a broad Asian stereotype and more about him being a broad nerdy stereotype. Now, granted, the Venn diagram intersection between “Asian stereotype” and “nerd stereotype” is pretty large, so I won’t be surprised if this is still read as touchy stuff by some of you. But I thought it worked. It played well with Han’s dorky hyper-earnestness, and it threw him into a relationship with the girls that made more sense than the two of them always being irritated by him. Granted, having the hot girls help the nerd learn how to get tail isn’t the newest trick in the book, but it’s much less offensive or horrifying than having him merely be the butt of Max’s jokes and having his accent be what pulls in most of the laughs surrounding him. Plus, it shows that the women have some degree of affection for the guy, even if he's occasionally irritating, which is a smart move. Han even got to hook up with a (pretty cute) lady at the ‘90s party. If the writers just threw out the accent (as I suggested last week), virtually none of this would have pinged anybody’s radar.
Similarly, the show is figuring out things to do with Earl that don’t have anything to do with his “aging hepcat” status. Making him the one paternalistic figure Max has in her life is a pretty smart move, and I think Garrett Morris plays the moments where he seems genuinely concerned for Max’s well-being or where he intervenes on behalf of her in an altercation with Caroline’s ex-boyfriend very well. I don’t know that the show needs an authority figure, but I’m glad that it’s at least trying something with the character that isn’t, “Hey, here’s an old black guy. Isn’t he cool?” The chemistry between Dennings and Morris has always been good, and this is a good way to play off of it.
The storytelling still needs work, but in this episode, there was at least a genuine sense of comedic momentum. Yes, the storylines still rely a little too heavily on Caroline and Max encountering weird people at strange locations—this episode, they met a bunch of ‘80s dance party-attending hipsters at a Laundromat—and yes, the storylines still rely too heavily on the exact wrong character walking through the door at the exact wrong moment. (In this episode, it was Caroline’s ex-boyfriend, William, who was kind of enjoyable for his sheer douchey smarm.) But there’s actually something like a comedic setup—Max needs to pay her bills, and Caroline needs to confront the fact that William was a douchebag—that has an actual payoff here, when the two storylines dovetail with the women realizing they can throw a ‘90s-themed party at the diner and charge extra to ride Chestnut. These stories also intersect with the “Han is looking for love” storyline, and by the time the camera was pulling back from the girls riding away from the diner on their horse, Han making out with his new lady friend on the sidewalk, it actually felt like some of the grunt-work the series has been doing in fleshing out this world was paying off.
There are problems—of course there are problems; this is 2 Broke Girls—but they seem blessedly minimal in the face of the show building a story around the girls but somehow managing to rope everybody else in in much the same way. And the show’s topical humor still isn’t exactly fresh, but at least it doesn’t seem to be selling the idea that all Max needs is for a rich person to show her how to not give up on her dreams. To be sure, the two characters fall into the classic stereotypes of the earthy poor person who knows about What Really Matters and How To Have Earthy Fun and the bubbly rich person who knows about Making Money and Having Gaudy Fun, but the show is at least talking about some of these things. It’s finally starting to feel like it understands what Max is talking about when she says she’s poor, and it even has moments where the mix of texture and over-the-top gags seem straight out of a Susan Harris series. (Harris, one of the great sitcom writers of all time, created Soap and The Golden Girls and came out of the Norman Lear factory. The show would do well to emulate her blend of broad, gag-a-minute storytelling and political, class-based humor.) The show has a long way to go before it hits the estimable heights of those shows, but confident in its leads, it’s finally trying to find the way forward.
- What the hell is the theme music/incidental music for this show? I’m not a big fan, but I’ve started hearing it in commercials now, and I assume I’m losing my mind. Is it just one of those stock pieces that two different companies put down money for at the same time, the way you’ll sometimes hear the same music in commercials that you hear on Curb Your Enthusiasm?
- Another good sign: I actually laughed out loud a handful of times at this episode, instead of my usual handful of polite chuckles. More laughs plus no cringes equals a better episode.
- Okay, I’ll bite: What the hell is this series’ deal with stereotypical hipsters? It almost seems like the show needs to mock hipsters and flash mobs and so on, but it’s like a security blanket the show doesn’t really need. I was hopeful when the teaser didn’t have anything to do with hipsters—instead, it was all about Han attempting to organize a flash mob in the diner, which wasn’t hilarious or anything but was at least not a bunch of jokes about Coldplay—but then the hipsters wandered into the Laundromat. Sometimes, we just can’t have nice things.