In light of the fact that Whitney is so dependent on putting new spins on ancient dating clichés, I’m at the “it’s not you, it’s me” point with the sitcom and its creator. Because while I’ve been able to see many, many flaws in the three episodes of the series that have aired thus far, I’m in the minority of Whitney’s viewership (though, naturally, not among my fellow critics). The show is apparently doing just fine for itself, finding a large enough audience to merit a full-season pickup and pull better Nielsen numbers than any other comedy on The Peacock Network, save for The Office. Sure those numbers slipped a bit last week, but they were still the type that Community or Parks And Recreation (or Free Agents, R.I.P.—enjoy the sympathy bouquet of Whitney reruns) would kill for. There are clearly a lot of people out there who find Cummings’ acerbic stylings and risqué subject matter hilarious; I’m just not one of them. It does no good to give up hope on a television series this early into its run, so I’m not ready to ditch Whitney—I’m ready to ditch the idea that it’s ever going to make me laugh. Tonight’s episode, “Silent Treatment,” inspired a stray chuckle or two (one of which was shockingly prompted by the usually insufferable Mike) but I think that’s all the show is ever going to get out of me.
On a basic level, Whitney has something strong going for it: Cummings’ personal perspective. I may find the show to be a bit shallow and aimless, but it at least projects a distinct point-of-view. That’s both a blessing and a curse; it saves the show from being a complete failure, but it also causes every aspect of the series to be filtered through that single POV. Which is how you end up with an episode like “Silent Treatment,” where different characters take different stances on a single issue—but they all speak in Cummings’ voice. Early in the episode, there’s a scene where Alex, frozen-out by his girlfriend due to his wandering eyes, affects a Whitney-like tone and launches into a rant about takeout options ripped straight from a Cummings stand-up routine. Later, the same thing happens to Lily, though she’s supposed to be espousing her own views on Facebook. If Whitney ever hopes to actually develop these characters, they’ll need to stop seeming like they’re simply puppets for the series’ showrunner/star.
The A-story of “Silent Treatment” is initiated by Alex’s refusal to acknowledge his minor indiscretion—he’s apparently the only guy in history to find a pair of sweatpants with “Sexy” emblazoned on the ass legitimately sexy—but its roots are in a Cummings routine previously seen in her one-hour stand-up special, Money Shot. It’s an observational bit that takes up all of a minute in Money Shot; it’s so efficient and so illustrative of Cummings’ “crazy girlfriend” persona that NBC eventually boiled it down to a 30-second promo for Whitney. (As regular, non-Adblock-using visitors to The A.V. Club may recall, Cummings believes the silent treatment is a reward, not a punishment. Also, whoever invented morning sex forgot about morning breath.) Overall, it’s a clean, crisp setup with a punchline that can be drawn out for as many examples of the anti-silent treatment as Cummings feels like citing.
Definitely not long enough to sustain an entire 22 minutes of sitcom, however. Yet that’s what “Silent Treatment” attempts, stretching the joke to the breaking point and exposing its facile conclusions about relations between the sexes. “Silent Treatment” gestures toward giving its supporting cast their own self-contained conflicts and one-off desires—Roxanne apparently needs to do some major upkeep on her social-networking presence, while Mark is working on a new catchphrase—but neither of those characters’ names are onscreen after the cold open, so those plots are rightfully treated as inconsequential filler. This is Whitney’s show, after all, and “Silent Treatment” makes sure that the latest Whitney-Alex tiff occupies most of the episode’s running time—pacing be damned. And so she leaves Alex in non-communicative limbo, until Roxanne—every bit the creation of a stand-up comedian she is—points out a fatal flaw in Whitney’s plan. From there on out it’s a nonstop, mostly crazy, totally unfunny jabberfest until Alex comes clean. Looks like these kooky kids are going to make it after all.
In the sitcom canon, there are countless characters who inspired viewer empathy and devotion while being entirely unrelatable and easily dislikeable, including everyone from Archie Bunker and Ted Baxter to Monica Geller and Lucille Bluth. In spite of this, there was always something within those characters and the way they grew over the course of their televised lives that ultimately endeared them to audiences. Whitney is such a young show, yet I feel like this is where my subjective knocks on its main character begin to reveal some objective truths about her. Because, save for the few moments she’s being a helpful friend or putting aside the relationship bullshit to show why she and Alex stay together, Whitney’s a tough character to like. And the fact that I don’t find her funny only makes that tougher. There have been very brief flashes of information that provide explanation for her rough edges and suggest a touch of empathy—glimpsed tonight in a tongue-tying breakdown of her parents’ various infidelities—but they’ve been pretty clumsily handled. I don’t think I’d like Whitney or the show that bears her name any more if this type of character development bore a more elegant touch, but it would certainly convince me that Cummings has a better grasp on what’s fit for a television comedy and what isn’t. But before Whitney becomes the kind of series that can do that, I may already be giving it my own version of the silent treatment.
- For as proudly and aggressively as Whitney touts its “filmed before a live studio audience” status, why are the cold opens taped without an audience?
- The line that got the laugh: “Take that, adorable snack.”