Last week on that other Whitney Cummings show, Whitney, one of the characters came out of the closet. I hesitate to say that it was “good” television, but it was television that was at least trying to do new things and playing around with which combinations of the characters works best. Whitney is never going to be must-see TV for me, but it’s at least a show that feels like it has something to prove and is doing its best to prove it, even if pretty much nobody’s watching it now. The chip the show had on its shoulder toward the single-camera NBC sitcoms at the start of the season has evolved into a sincere effort to evolve into a better TV show, weak premise and bland characters be damned.
I don’t need to tell you that this never happened with 2 Broke Girls, because if you’re watching the show or reading these reviews, you already know that. The show’s a massive hit, and where that sometimes translates into the ability to say, “Hey, we’re a massive hit, so we’re going to do our best to push the audience to new and interesting places” (as happened on one of this show’s closest ancestors, Roseanne), the show has decided to use essentially all of its “fuck you” ratings on racial stereotypes and sex gags. Tonight’s episode was sort of like co-creator and executive producer Michael Patrick King’s response to that infamous TCA session in January, in which he dealt with critics accusing the show of being filled with racist stereotypes who have nothing interesting to do—which it is—by essentially reiterating his argument from that panel: If I make fun of gay people, why can’t I make fun of everybody else, too?
To be fair to King, his argument in this episode is slightly more nuanced. He’s saying that there are some members of minority groups who embody the stereotypes that many people hold about those groups. He expresses this through the two gay men whose wedding Max and Caroline catered earlier in the season. They’re broad and ultra-feminine. They have a tutu-wearing poodle named Barbra Streisand and like Max because she’s a sassy girl who tells it like it is. Their security code for their apartment is “LIZA.” This goes on and on and on, and King’s much gentler about it than he could have been, given how pissed off he was at that panel. I think what he’s saying is that there are people who embody stereotypes, yes, but these people can also be a firm starting foundation for comedy.
And yes! That’s true! Nearly every comedic character starts out as a stereotype of one sort or another—though I suspect many writers would prefer “archetypes”—whether it’s the miserly boss or the black woman who won’t take anybody’s shit or the tyrannical middle manager who takes out his frustrations on everybody around him. We recognize these people from earlier fiction or maybe even from our everyday lives. We’ll give a story a little time to develop characters beyond those stereotypes, because we expect it to do that, but we’re also okay with starting in a stereotypical place. So, ultimately, it didn’t bug me that the husbands were such stereotypes both because the show called attention to it and because the story, such as it was, didn’t have anything to do with them.
The problem with 2 Broke Girls isn’t that it started out with a bunch of stereotypical characters. It’s that it hasn’t bothered to develop them at all. Tonight, Oleg continues his sexual pursuit of Sophie, Earl makes some wisecracks and says he was sad when Max was gone, and Han doesn’t know what “on the down low” and “rice queen” mean. (He looks both up on the Internet and is happy to assure those asking that he’s straight. I’m sure you Han fans were really intrigued by this.) These characters continue to be marginalized and tossed off to the side of the story, where they have nothing to do, and that makes it easy to harp on the fact that not a one of them has been developed beyond an easy stereotype, often based on race or cultural signifiers: Han, the naïve Asian nerd; Earl, the wisecrackin’ African-American guy; Oleg, the sex-crazed Eastern European. If the show had done anything at all to suggest it knew something about these people beyond their initial stereotypes, a lot of people (myself included!) would be there to cut it all the slack in the world. Instead, it just keeps playing the same notes over and over.
Early in the episode, Caroline chastises Max for stereotyping the gay men, telling her that she wouldn’t like it if people thought of her as the sarcastic waitress who slept with everyone in high school (or something). Max tosses back a sassy retort, of course, but the level of detail Caroline provides about Max goes above and beyond the idea of a stereotype. If it’s still a stereotype, then it’s a remarkably specific one, and it speaks to Max and maybe a handful of other people. The writers simply haven’t bothered to specify the three guys in the same way they have with Max and Caroline, and that leaves the show adrift every time it tries to defend itself against the most persistent criticism leveled against it. It does its best tonight—and, again, I’m kind of impressed at how well it acquits itself—but it once again fails because, well, have you seen the diner scenes?
This is a bigger problem than it would be because this is clearly a show that doesn’t want to be a story-based sitcom but, rather, a show where we want to hang out with the characters. The same basic story beats keep repeating themselves, and the show keeps reminding us over and over of Caroline and Max’s separate back-stories, as if it doesn’t trust us to keep up. Tonight’s episode is completely devoid of conflict, in fact, existing mostly as an episode where Max and Caroline take a spring break in the gay guys’ apartment (to dog-sit), then find themselves sucked into a new string of adventures. Nothing happens, and the one development that does—Caroline persuades some food bloggers to check out the cupcakes—drops in from the sky. A story that doesn’t possess momentum is fine in a show where the characters are well-drawn and fun (hello, Gilmore Girls), but this is just a half hour of people being nice to each other and Kat Dennings occasionally making a wisecrack about it. If Whitney Cummings’ other show is trying its damnedest, yet still not entirely working, that’s preferable to this show, which is slowly retreating back into its shell.
- I did think tonight’s episode was a bit funnier than the recent string of episodes have been. I got a smirk out of some of Dennings’ line readings, and I also really enjoyed Caroline’s sarcastic impression of Max working at a steel mill.
- The scenes not set in the diner primarily exist on this show to give the two central women stereotypes to bounce off of, but I will say I didn’t mind Zeke the bacon guy nearly as much as some of the other one-episode love interests the series has brought in.
- I didn’t much like Ashley, and I hope to never see her again.