Todd’s finally taking a much deserved day off, but alas, today is not the day the AV Club comes to its senses on 2 Broke Girls because I love this show. I will only hedge to say that, okay, maybe love’s a little strong, and it wasn’t even on my year-end best list, and the jokes could use some work, at least if the goal is making us laugh, but the promise remains intoxicating. At last we have a comedy about two women in an economy that resembles real life (see also: The Middle, Raising Hope), and jokes that are as vulgar and classless as, whaddyaknow, poverty itself. Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs are spinning obvious sex jokes into rich characters and a relationship unlike any other on television. The core of 2 Broke Girls is as strong as this season gets. It’s the clothes and makeup that could use some punching up.
Not literally, of course. The low-rent veneer of 2 Broke Girls is one of its charms, from the mustard (and mustard-stained) costumes to the earthy browns and reds of the sets to the graffiti-marred brick walls and ‘80s subways. It’s not about verisimilitude but expressionism. Just looking at this poverty comedy is uncomfortable: there’s a greasy, hairy cook and a pile of horseshit and a cast without one friendly white person. Then there’s the sound, the weird rhythms of forced puns and disembodied laughter of the multicamera format, the crude jokes barely concealing genuine pain, the hostile tone of Max and squealy pitch of Caroline and a worldview that sorts everyone into handy stereotypes because it’s easier than getting to know someone. In a network ocean of heartwarming families and edgeless satire and comfort food, 2 Broke Girls is deliberately trying not to fit in. Like Lisbeth Salander, it’s practically daring you to get close.
The problem is when 2 Broke Girls settles for mediocre sitcom entertainment with a bunch of lazy jokes that offend less by how shocking they are than by how they flounder out and collapse on the sticky tile floors, or when this epic of women discovering that mobility (the American dream) is a lot harder than they expected settles for the rom-com narrative that marks so many of its neighbors. “And the Secret Ingredient” barely made me laugh (Ke$hame spiral, really?), but it’s not hard to see its intellectual energies working at something deeper than the wordplay groaners about taboo subjects that fly out of Michael Patrick King like it's the last year on earth. “Just say it: Tampon, tampon, tampon. What’s the big deal?” is a strange thesis but a progressive one, and if Oleg can make me laugh, that’s a good sign.
If anything "And the Secret Ingredient" is a perfectly representative episode of the show 2 Broke Girls has become, not its apotheosis but neither a step back. Coupons and tampons are this week’s windows into poverty and feminism, not that the episode made any grand statement but rather that it represents a fluid contribution to a surprisingly sharp worldview. $70 isn’t nothing, and it’s refreshing to hear that on television just minutes after Ted and Barney spontaneously opened a bar in their apartment. It’s also refreshing to see tampons discussed frankly—and even that made room for Caroline to talk about the injustice of the 200% price-hike—and to see the guest cast filled out with racial minorities. The Coupon Queen of Williamsburg, her husband, and Tanya the checkout girl were all funny and independent, which makes them enemies to Max & Caroline but who isn’t?
“And the Secret Ingredient” opens the same way the show always does, with another nakedly contrived vignette of our waitress-heroes being funny-mean to customers, some who deserve it, just to set the prickly tone. This one’s about a guy who is weirdly set on Muenster cheese, finally pushing Caroline into weary waitressland. But there’s another facet to this gag that Tanya brings out: people working low-wage jobs aren’t often there by choice. Max can act like she doesn’t have much to lose because she doesn’t—that and Han’s afraid of her. There isn’t much more the world can heap on Max, or at least, that’s how it feels to her. The episode revealed slightly more about her unfortunate childhood and made even clearer that she jokes about it to cope—that 11 year-old designated driver joke certainly wasn’t there for the comedy. And Chestnut finally found his purpose as a sounding board, as Max bonds with him over absent mothers.
I saved the titular plot ingredient for last: We discover that Max’s cupcakes aren’t made from scratch. Not sure how Caroline could have helped her make them all this time and not noticed all those boxes in the trash, but as a retcon, it’s a surprisingly disturbing one. It makes perfect sense that Max is able to make delicious cupcakes not because of an innate gift but because she’s selling Duncan Hines, but it’s unsettling to discover the only thing Max had going for her, at least in terms of the show’s let’s-open-a-cupcake-shop conceit, is a lie. When we discover at the very end that Max has another secret ingredient, one she was keeping extra secret A) because she’s fiercely private, B) so the episode could continue, C) because the writers aren’t that cynical, or D) all of the above, it’s a bizarre relief. I never knew I cared so much about Max’s cupcakes. But it’s not her cupcakes, it’s her creativity and her labor and her means of mobility. I really hope the actual secret ingredient isn’t Betty Crocker.