I think 2 Broke Girls needs to get weird.
Every time the show’s made me laugh—something it did only once tonight—it’s come from the way that it can get strange and bizarre, as though someone in the writers room has pulled out a story from their past that might seem traumatizing under other circumstances and has turned it into sitcom fodder. Things like Max kissing the woman on the subway or Max talking to Chestnut in a goofy voice or some of the gags at Subway Smiles were jokes that weren’t just jokes. They were weird little stories, in and of themselves, the sorts of things you might repeat to friends over drinks. “Can you believe this shit I just saw?” you’d say, and they’d all lean in closer to hear about the shit that you, indeed, just saw.
Or take tonight’s episode. The one decent gag here involves Max’s memories of a coffee shop before it was that coffee shop, when it was run by an Irish man with a freckled penis. How does she know this? Because he used to corner her and flash her, but it was okay, because he’d comp her a lottery ticket. There’s something so specific about the phrasing here, so specific about the way everything is set up and worded that it strikes me that this was something somebody in the room had been dying to get in there and was happy to finally have the opportunity. Too many of the jokes on the show feel like the studio audience should start shouting them along with the characters, and almost invariably, when one of the punchlines comes up, it’s something you can see coming from a mile away. But when the show gets weird or hyper-personal or just plain oddball, fun things can happen because it loses the predictability of the laughs.
You can, of course, get good humor out of putting familiar characters in situations where we know how they’ll react and relish getting to see that. That’s basically 95 percent of all sitcom stories ever told, and there are many, many sitcoms (including some highly critically acclaimed ones) that never break from this formula and put it to good use. But Caroline and Max aren’t so well known to us that we can be excited by the very idea of Max being forced by Caroline to attend a cupcake decorating class. There still needs to be some surprise here, some sense that every episode allows us to discover new things about the world the show is set in. Instead, the surprise gets gobbled up by the way the show pounds every single gag that works into the ground.
Take, for instance, the word “vagina.” There’s nothing wrong with that word being used in jokes. Like “penis,” it’s kind of a funny word on its own, without any of the other associations we have with it. And, honestly, the idea that Caroline had subconsciously decorated her bed so that it looked like a vagina was a fairly funny one. But at the same time, the show has so over-used this particular word that it’s become harder and harder to say, “Oh, hey, vagina sure is a funny word, and they’re sure right that that bed looks like one.” Because, honestly, it kind of did look like a vagina, at least as much as a bed on network television is going to resemble a reproductive origin. But the joke was killed by the show’s inability to stop repeating itself. Once it finds something that works, by gum, it’s just going to keep hammering away at it, regardless of what we might think.
Anyway, tonight’s episode started promisingly. There weren’t a lot of laughs, but I think the job of character development the show has been doing has been rather underrated. Sure, we get the basic broad strokes of Max the cynic and Caroline the optimist, but we’re also getting some intriguing hints about how, say, Caroline’s got just a touch of racism about whom she’ll sleep with. (This might have had a bit more punch if Carlos—the guy Johnny was trying to set her up with—wasn’t such a stiff.) And the stuff about how Max has to force herself to try at anything and would much rather coast through life, not really accomplishing anything, is very well done, too. She likes praise from people, but she doesn’t want to really do anything to earn that praise. She just wants it to fall in her lap. She’s good at making cupcakes, sure, but that’s not the sort of thing she’d ever have done anything with, if not for her new friend.
So, yes, there were some good character beats here, and the story mostly made sense, too. Caroline thinks Max is ready to take the business to the next step, but when the two try to sell their cupcakes to a local coffee shop (as recommended by the trend-setters in the diner), they find themselves rebuffed by the spacey New Age type behind the counter. The cupcakes aren’t pretty enough, and that’s going to be a problem. So Caroline signs the two up for a cupcake decorating class, and around the edges of this, the show hints at Caroline’s lack of sex and Max’s ongoing flirtation with Johnny, all the while building up the two characters just a bit. It’s not rocket science, but it’s at least a story that makes sense on a logic level, unlike a lot of the episodes so far. (I also like the way the show is increasingly serialized, with storylines playing across several episodes, and the cupcake storyline ending up far more prominent than I ever thought it would be at the start.)
Then, of course, the show wanders into a phenomenon I like to call, “TV writers have heard of Jersey Shore, and they think Italians are inherently funny.” Essentially all of the material after Caroline and Max get to the bakery for their cupcake decorating class is based on tired Italian jokes, from the idea that the two women running the bakery—including Carla Gallo, whom I’m usually predisposed to like quite a bit—have mob money invested in their business to the way that the two keep giving each other high fives for no real reason. This is all meant to build to a triumphant moment when Max tells the women off by showing them that she can, indeed, make a pretty frosting rose, and while the studio audience was all in on this moment, I was not. The sequences at the bakery were painful, incredibly so, and this is a show that’s had some painful sequences. Plus, they sucked up an incredible amount of time in an episode that had, to that point, developed some interesting ideas. Pretty much one good idea came out of this whole thing: Max and Caroline’s cupcakes are going to have insults written on them. I don’t know how that works as a business strategy, but at least it’s something more concrete than “cupcakes!”
Look at it this way: Comedy is born out of specificity, much of the time. And while 2 Broke Girls manages some nice specificity in the way that Caroline and Max are developed and the way they relate to one another, it hasn’t really bothered to develop specificity in its humor and has, somehow, gotten even blander as time has gone on. The show’s stereotype gags are alarming from the point of view of the series seeming to believe that all it has to do to get us to laugh is slap a guy with a non-standard accent up there, but they’re also alarming from a humor standpoint because they’re just lazy. And that’s, I think, why the show could stand to get more weird. Weirdness is almost always something that is very specific to whoever is trying to share that weirdness with you. You either go along with it or you don’t, but at least it’s something genuine. The show could use more of that genuine spirit and much less of the, “Hey, here are some jokes we dusted off from The Jack Benny Show” if it wants to live up to its promise.
- Terrible supporting characters alert: Han, who was used very little both last week and this week, has mostly settled into an earnest nerd archetype. I still wish the accent would go, but at least it’s less offensive than it was. Earl is stuck in his long string of, “I was so cool in the ‘70s!” gags. And Oleg is… Oleg still. And although I don’t really like the character, I do like that he’s always carrying around a meat tenderizer. Maybe they could do something with that.
- The show continues to suggest that Johnny and Max have super-hot chemistry just because it says they do. And, sure, when you put two attractive people in close proximity to each other, you’re going to get some sparks, just on general principle. But I still don’t really buy it. Whatever happened to just letting will-they/won’t-they relationships evolve organically? (For instance, in that scene where Max was trying to make the perfect rose and woke up Caroline, I half expected the two to start making out. I don’t think this is something the show is intending.)
- Somebody requested a “needless expenditures counter,” and I think that’s a good idea. Setting aside the idea that these two are somehow caring for a horse with no real problems, this week’s big expenditure was the cupcake decorating class. However, you could conceivably argue this was seen as necessary for the business at the time the women signed up for it, so it’s not as needless as it might seem at first blush. At least the episode-ending money counter went down instead of up for what I think is the first time ever, though the two will be catering Michael and Steve’s wedding and, thus, will make that money back.
- Another gag I sort of liked: All of the guys named Michael.
- Lest I be accused of not really lighting into this show the way some of you want me to, the Italian bakery subplot was really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really awful. It singlehandedly dragged the grade down a few points.