Because Whitney’s central relationship is stable and several years old, the series is inherently limited in the types of stories it can tell about that relationship. By the time we met Whitney and Alex, they had tons of history and potential story arcs behind them. Unless the show starts using a lot of flashbacks, we’re never going to witness their meet cute, their ratcheting sexual tension, or the potentially disastrous moment where Alex asked Whitney to move in with him.
And we don’t have to see that stuff, because as evidenced by “First Date,” it can be explained away in a few quick moments of exposition. Whitney and Alex didn’t have much of a meet cute (they first encounter one another at a bar), and they cut through the sexual tension entirely (after leaving the bar, they slept together for the first time). Yet, rather than using these details to delve into a plot about what’s happening in Whitney and Alex’s relationship right now, Whitney Cummings once more runs her televised alter ego through the motions of trying to fix something that ain’t broken—this time attempting to give the couple the first date they never had. And goodness gracious is it ever unfunny.
Last week, my colleague Steve Heisler noted that the pilot episode of Whitney lacked an obvious “source of chaos”—before noting that Whitney herself could potentially fill that role. She definitely does so in “First Date,” initiating a somewhat creative solution to a gap in her and Alex’s dating history, which predictably backfires and nearly jeopardizes their entire relationship. It’s intriguing that both episodes of the series have hinged on Whitney throwing up some sort of illusion to improve what appears to be a perfectly good dating arrangement—last week it was the nurse-patient role-play, this week it’s the imaginary first date. There’s obviously some “repeat the pilot for the people who missed it” at play, but these plots have a weird way of both enforcing Whitney’s predilection for harebrained schemes and undermining the impression that her relationship is fine as it is. If she’s so eager to spice things up, why doesn’t she just leave Alex? An effective source of chaos should have some contradictory qualities, but it’s difficult to buy the multiple contrivances of “First Date.”
It’s also hard to buy a lot of the jokes in “First Date,” too many of which serve the plot, rather than the characters. It’s far too early for Whitney to be devoting this much energy to plot mechanics—if it wants viewers to keep coming back, it ought to give them some likeable (or at the very least) funny characters to come back for. With so many of the supporting characters’ lines devoted to riffing on Whitney and Alex’s ridiculous situation (or the ridiculousness of Whitney herself), there’s very little left for them to put forth other than, say, “Roxanne is a drunk” and “Mark is a horndog.” And it doesn’t help Whitney’s case any that she always seems likely to launch into a stand-up routine at a moment’s notice. “We can run for president, but we still can’t call a guy after a first date,” she says to Roxanne and Lily, as if they’re a comedy-club audience and not her two best friends.
That said, the supporting characters themselves are much more tolerable this time around. Maybe it’s just that they’re competing with a much more over-the-top version of Whitney, but both Roxanne and Mark are toned down from what we saw in the pilot. Similarly, the cutesy aspects of the Lily-Neal relationship are nicely underplayed. Those two characters are becoming a nice contrast to Whitney and Alex, though the series should probably mothball the “puppy-love excitement vs. domestic contentment” plots for a few episodes. I’m almost inclined to say I’d rather watch a series where Lily and Neal are the leads and Whitney and Alex are their crazy friends, but Leal (LiNealy? Neally?) lacks the potential for conflict to sufficiently drive an entire sitcom. (Also, the inevitable episode of Whitney where Lily and Neal finally have a fight and the guys and the girls help each party get through and over it is going to be really obnoxious.)
Of course, for all the problems I have with the setup of “First Date,” its payoff—with the help of Lily and Neal, Whitney and Alex end up reenacting their actual first night together—feels earned and authentic. It’s telegraphed as soon as Alex, Neal, and Mark arrive at the bar, but it’s a nice bit of warmth that, despite the 18 minutes that precede it, makes a good argument for why Whitney and Alex are still together. You know, the kind of observation you can make about that kind of relationship without involving a bunch of flimsy complications.
- Because Whitney knows what some of its viewers are tuning in for, “First Date” once again opens with suggestive shots of Cummings in the bathroom and finds an excuse to squeeze her into a skimpy outfit in the second act.
- I find it hard to believe that Cummings couldn’t come up with a better name for a fictional bar/burger joint than “Greasy Rick’s.”
- Neal sneaking up behind Lily as she’s delivering the “Not knowing when he’s going to kiss you” line squeezed a legitimate chuckle out of me—but it might have been the only one for the entire episode.