I’ll admit to being inordinately happy when Outsourced was cancelled last May. Aside from all of the show’s flat-out racist humor, I didn’t like any of its characters, and I had developed such a strong allegiance to Community that any other show threatening its place on NBC’s schedule immediately earned my ire. When Whitney got on the air, I was prepared to hate it on similar grounds—not just the derivative, recycled sitcom humor. But my living room wasn’t silent while watching this season (and most likely series) finale, and it wasn’t during the previous handful of episodes either. I laughed a fair amount, because Whitney managed to cultivate a bit of a perspective, albeit a rather tone-deaf and unpopular one. For better or worse, I’m sad that neither Whitney nor Are You There, Chelsea? brought NBC the big ratings other networks scored this season with other female-led comedies.
Since the last time The A.V. Club covered Whitney, the show has moved quickly, so let’s catch up on everything that’s happened. Lily and Neal argued over a prenup, split before their wedding, then Neal turned out to be gay, or bisexual—really, Maulik Pancholy is still playing Jonathan from 30 Rock—and they moved back in together as friends… or something. Mark developed feelings for Roxanne, because otherwise those two characters wouldn’t have much to do other than make the same parroted comments that the other four characters already spout out ad nauseum. Alex came home drunk from a party at a strip club and proposed to Whitney, and then after the first half of the finale last week, he proposed while sober, in the strip club, and Whitney accepted. It’s a pretty rushed back half of the season, but the cast and crew had to see the writing on the wall, and this wraps things up in a reasonable way.
That proposal moment between Whitney and Alex was heartfelt but completely unearned, and the tacked-on audience reaction was especially hokey. I had a pretty good idea what to expect from this, considering just about the only thing smartly drawn about Alex and Whitney outside of tired sitcom clichés is how poorly they fit into the idea of a married couple. Plans for an extremely hasty next-day wedding lead to City Hall (hey there, Nicole Sullivan), the DMV, a visit with Whitney’s father (nice to see you again, Peter Gallagher), and after another nice beat where Alex gives Whitney an engagement ring, the emergency room. The conclusion—after a nice exchange where Whitney calls Alex out for listening to the universe after two days instead of her for something like three years—is that they don’t need to actually be married to be committed. If the episode had ended there, I’d be fine, but the trip to the tattoo parlor was yet another instance of a bus driving by and splashing a mud puddle all over the place. Sure, it sort of fits the characters to get matching “I Do” tattoos on their ribs, but that calm final moment to the incomplete Alex/Whitney arc can’t overshadow the shortcomings of the entire season.
I keep feeling the need to apologize for liking aspects of Whitney when I really shouldn’t. I don’t mind Whitney Cummings, I genuinely like Chris D’Elia and (fellow Northwestern graduate) Maulik Pancholy, and as I said, I found more to laugh at in the little quips than I initially expected to. The broad DMV humor and “guys just don’t listen” angle is so base that it rarely garners a reaction anymore, but whereas Are You There, Chelsea? is content to completely brush the male perspective off the table, Whitney at least includes the same skewed and brusque attitude from Alex, Mark, and Neal. It even handled the issue of Neal and Lily splitting up, and Neal’s sexual confusion, with surprising maturity. That may be arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but there is some value to looking at what sitcoms with female leads failed in the unusually crowded lineup this past year.
I am not the audience for this kind of show, but that doesn’t mean something in this vein shouldn’t be able to succeed. The mid-20s male nerd-skewing comedies can’t dominate the schedule, but I am at least aware of this show. I had to go looking to find out that Mike And Molly was renewed for a third season. Strong-willed women deserve a place on television, but I’m not sure the eerily similar vibe that Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea? give off needs to be back-to-back on one network where the main creative forces are so closely associated.
Whitney didn’t succeed on many levels, despite putting a ton of sitcom clichés through the grinder to rough them up for reuse. The show didn’t succeed as a multi-camera comedy with a live audience. How I Met Your Mother is romantic where this show was caustic and holding firm on the ideal of a “modern relationship.” The Big Bang Theory has a better gimmick for a setup: four nerds and the girl across the hall over just a random assemblage of friends. It didn’t succeed at being a Chicago show either. Happy Endings has a more likeable ensemble with quirkier and less abrasive characters. The League does raunchy material better, and has a more realistic, yet still inaccurate, set for Gibson’s in River North. Hell, we can toss in Boss in there as the only really location-accurate show set in the city at the moment.
On a wider scale, I worry what this kind of turnover means for NBC. Outsourced lasted one season, and Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea? are probably similarly doomed. The Office is circling the drain, Community hopefully has one more season, Smash and The Voice are slowly declining despite renewal notices. I’m rooting for the network to succeed, and even for it to succeed with a show like this. A female lead with a defined perspective should be able to do well, but neither incarnation of that idea went over well during this television season. Instead, the broadest of the broad female-led comedies (2 Broke Girls) found the right kind of Chuck Lorre balance to be a huge hit, and the quirkiest (New Girl) had to skew back towards the middle with the help of a breakout supporting character. (That’s not including the debut of Don’t Trust the B- In Apt 23, which bows in a few weeks.)
There are enough pilots that NBC just has to keep putting them in the chamber and firing them out into the world. One of them is going to hit the side of the demographic barn. Whitney wasn’t it, and it looks like Are You There, Chelsea? isn’t going to be either. It might still be in limbo, and it’s a foregone conclusion that the cast will move on, but I do hope that Cummings gets another chance. She bet on the wrong horse this season by leaving 2 Broke Girls, and it’s unfortunate that the losing bet was on the show where she played the lead, but that’s how it went this time. For all its flaws, I still laughed at this finale more times that I laughed during the entirety of Outsourced last year.
- Not to belittle anyone who worked on Outsourced, but there was a cast and crew campaign to save the show. Did anyone join in on that?