Judging by the commenter reaction to this edition of What’s On Tonight?, I take it many readers of The A.V. Club have also read the interview Whitney executive producer Betsy Thomas gave to TV Guide at the start of the current television season. In what I’m assuming was only a small chunk of her conversation with TV Guide’s Natalie Abrams (because I can’t imagine Abrams contacted Thomas to specifically address this issue), Thomas anticipates criticisms that Whitney doesn’t “fit” with the rest of NBC’s Thursday-night lineup. Of course, that fit was never going to be determined by the people behind the scenes at Whitney or writers like Abrams or myself—it was up to the vocal minority that watches Community and Parks And Recreation, then sticks around (out of obligation, a sense of nostalgia, or genuine interest—or a combination of all three) to watch The Office with the less-obsessive TV-watchers switching over from the CBS comedies. To her credit, Thomas brushed off the saliva of the detractors-in-waiting, registering her hope that Whitney struck a chord with viewers, no matter their taste in television.
Of course, she didn’t do so without first lobbing a pair of bombs in the direction of Whitney’s Thursday-night cohorts:
“There’s a comedy snobbery around the Thursday night lineup folks that I find incredibly irritating,” she says. “It’s like somehow it became cool to stop trying to be funny. I think the single-cam, like smirking at the camera, mockumentary thing, is one way to do comedy, but I don’t think it’s the only way.”
“We’re just making comedy, that’s all we’re doing,” she continues. “We’re not trying to prove a huge point, we’re just trying to entertain people for 30 minutes as they wind down their day as they get their kids to bed. It’s not rocket science, you know. Everybody just needs to relax a little bit about it. Everybody just stop taking yourself so fucking seriously.”
Those are only excerpt from an excerpt (and a fairly conflicted excerpt at that; Thomas, who created the single-camera TBS sitcom My Boys, also says that if she and husband Adrian Wenner weren’t working on Whitney they’d “be predisposed to not like it”), but they’ve largely come to define the narrative surrounding Whitney. Which is ridiculous, because as much as I don’t like the series, I don’t see it as an affront to the shows I look forward to watching on Thursdays. This is not an issue of “us vs. them”—this is an issue of people creating a product the way they want to create a product. And for those of us who aren’t professionally obligated to watch that project week to week, we can change the channel. (Though the 9:30 Thursday slot remains a particularly dire piece of television real estate.)
That said: “The Wire” does take its title from what’s arguably the “people taking television too seriously”-est series of the last 10 years. So it’s hard not to see that as a big middle finger from the people at Whitney. “Haha!” their voices echo through the heads of the TV obsessive, “This is what we think of your precious, David Simon-created chronicle of crumbling institutions and the death of an American city! We’re borrowing its title for a goofy episode where Whitney tries to win an argument with Alex by violating whatever fiber of trust remains in their blackened, weathered romance!
“Also,” they continue, their voices cackling in contempt and barely masking the sound of Chris D’Elia’s left eyebrow being set into a permanently cocked position, “Remember Ken Marino? Member of The State, part of the ensemble for those special little snowflakes you call Veronica Mars and Party Down? ‘I wanna dip my balls in it?’ He’s one of ours now. By the way, half of all marriages end in sweatpants.”
These are not the circumstances surrounding the creation or execution of “The Wire.” Because it is not a provocation of people who pride themselves on their taste in television. “The Wire” is simply a mediocre episode of a crummy sitcom, where the plot is contrived, the characters thin, the relationships poorly defined, and the jokes a watered-down take on “suitable for 9:30” raunchiness.
Still, for all that, “The Wire” does show that the Whitney writers are getting their legs in terms of storytelling. The episode adheres to a formulaic structure, but you have to learn the formula before you can break out of it—so that’s a plus, I suppose. If the formlessness of the early episodes can be shed so quickly, there’s hope yet that future episodes of Whitney won’t follow the “Disagreement hatches plot” --> “Plot plays out as Whitney desires” --> “Alex flips the script, destroys plot, achieves new normalcy” pattern of “A Decent Proposal” and “The Wire.”
And, amazingly, the episode doesn’t completely waste Marino’s guest appearance. His character, Brian, is right in the actor’s “redeemable lunkhead” wheelhouse. And though his screentime is minimal, the fact that Brian eventually factors into the episode’s conclusion—by echoing the condescending tone Whitney tried to squeeze out of Alex—justifies his existence and somewhat inexplicable intrusion into the hidden-camera plot. Unfortunately, he isn’t given a chance to foul things up in a night-irreversible manner; that’s Whitney’s job, and wanting the show to let Marino shine some of that old Ron Donald magic on “The Wire” is probably asking for too much.
Really, wanting anything noteworthy from the characters that aren’t Whitney and Alex in “The Wire” is asking for too much. This is an episode where Whitney attempts to have its rom-com cake and eat it with a scoop of ensemble hang-out show and a glass of Larry David-esque misanthropy—but instead of attempting to balance all of those elements, it crams them into one triple-layer dessert centered on the Whitney-Alex relationship. (Like that episode of Friends where Rachel makes the English trifle!) It doesn’t taste very good. (Like that episode of Friends where Rachel makes the English trifle!) Here’s the thing: The episode is essentially streamlined by the way its B-plot (Lily, Mark, Neal, and Roxanne watch the live surveillance footage of Whitney and Alex’s apartment) revolves around its A-plot (Whitney and Alex interact in the apartment as if they’re not on camera). But, in doing so, it makes it appear as if Lily, Mark, Neal, and Roxanne have no lives outside of their relationships with Whitney and Alex. For a show where the supporting characters so often act like extensions of the main character, this is no good. Whitney receives points for not letting “The Wire” sprawl beyond its means, but the only thing more dull than watching Whitney (the TV show) may be the other characters watching Whitney (the character).
Curiously, despite Thomas’ comments about Community, Parks And Rec, and The Office, that B-plot takes a stab at brand of “cool” comedy offered by those other Thursday-night shows. Once again, I don’t think this is meant as a slight to those series or their fans—but the tossed-off nature of the meta-commentary could be perceived as such. Watching Whitney within Whitney, the characters toss flat punchlines (Neal leans on the old critique that the apartment is too extravagant for the characters’ means—this despite the fact that Alex made a bunch of money selling an Internet company; KNOW YOUR OWN HISTORY, WHITNEY) that cheapen the self-aware form that has become the stock in trade of NBC’s cult comedies. When Thomas referred to the “smirking at the camera” done by other shows, I have the feeling this is the type of gag she meant—a hollow breaking of the fourth wall that implies that either the viewer and the writer is above all of this television hogwash. But when Abed points out the way a Community plot mirrors an old sitcom trope, the writers are doing that out of a respect for the form—and out of respect for the audiences ability to recognize such a trope. I didn’t get that sense from the meta gags of “The Wire,” and I rarely get it from Whitney as a whole. When it comes down to it, that’s one of the main advantages of taking things too fucking seriously—it shows how much you care.
- It’s either a tiny bit racist (because Maulik Pancholy is Whitney’s Indian castmember) or a tiny bit ingenious (because of Pancholy’s old gig on single-camera, Thursday-night staple 30 Rock) that he makes most of the meta jokes.
- One of the characters yells “Get him out of there! Get him out!” as soon as Brian enters Alex and Whitney’s apartment. I couldn’t agree more. Please get Ken Marino on another, better show.
- A final note on potential references to better shows within “The Wire”: Is the fact that Mark took the surveillance equipment without permission a nod to The Wire’s “Fuzzy Dunlop” subplot?
- This week’s “Whitney Cummings as Whitney Cummings” moment: “We’re fighting about the way we’re fighting,” which sounds plucked from the middle of a Cummings routine about relationship woes.
- This week’s “Whitney talking through other people” moment: Roxanne drops the roast-ready zinger “If Glee was real, this is how uncomfortable it would be.”
- This week’s laugh: Alex is pinned to the ground by Brian, who’s putting his brother through the old sibling-torture standby “Name 10 candy bars.” After Alex goes with Snickers for his first pick, Neal jumps up from Mark’s couch and shouts out three brands with shorter names. Because we were all thinking it.