A few years back in a blog post I’m not going to bother to find, Ken Levine, the comedy writing super genius who’s worked on everything from M*A*S*H to Cheers to The Simpsons (okay, he just co-wrote “Dancin’ Homer,” but what an episode!), said something I’ve carried with me when judging early episodes of a comedy. He said what he’s looking for in the first 13 episodes of a comedy isn’t a wildly original comic character—though that helps—or ridiculously funny jokes—though that also helps—or even much of a point-of-view—though… you know where I’m going with this. What he looks for is a relationship, ideally an original, new type of relationship (or a new spin on an old one), though it’s fine to go with one that has been done time and again but is just executed really well. Take a look at what I’d call the best first season of a comedy ever, the first season of Cheers. That show was based around a new kind of relationship: the will-they, won’t-they between Sam and Diane. And it worked like gangbusters. Everything emanated out from the conflict between those two, and the show immediately found its voice.
Granted, not all new comedies can be Cheers. Most aren’t. But I’ve found myself paying attention more and more to what Levine said as I watch new comedies, and it’s why I continue to believe there’s a good show lurking inside of 2 Broke Girls, even when the storytelling is nonexistent and the jokes are frequently questionable and/or terrible. A series that contains as interesting and amusing a relationship as the one between Caroline and Max—even if it’s a spin on a female friendship as old as I Love Lucy itself—is one that I think will work out its kinks if given enough time. Indeed, this week’s episode is already a substantial improvement over last week’s laughter, and I’m not just saying that because this is the episode I saw taped and I love the sound of my own laughter. (This is a lie. I don’t laugh. I just grin tightly and look like I have really bad gas. I’m kind of a terrible person.) It all boils down to the relationship at the center, and the one here is strong enough to withstand a bunch of other crap tossed at it.
Let’s start with the crap because we all enjoy picking on things. The storytelling on the show remains virtually nonexistent. There’s basically no story here. Instead, showrunner Michael Patrick King and credited writer Jhoni Marchinko just come up with a bunch of shit that happens and hope that’s enough for an episode. There’s a sorta story here about Max finding a Strokes T-shirt she really wants at a Goodwill and then having it taken out from under her nose by a crazy Puerto Rican woman (racial stereotypes ahoy!), which is all supposed to segue into an examination of how this is a new kind of friendship from the ones Caroline is used to. It doesn’t really work. Stuff just sort of happens with no rhyme or reason, and the episode largely leaves the connective tissue on the editing room floor, instead choosing to emphasize bigger moments over subtler character interaction. (And, having been at the taping, there’s at least five minutes of this episode that went missing between taping and air, though that’s typical for a comedy.) This is not to say that the episode as taped was a masterpiece of storytelling—the fact that pretty much nothing happened for a reason was apparent there, too. But it also made slightly more sense than this one did.
A lot of this is because the episode is, again, repeating the pilot, to some degree. But where episode two was pretty much a direct repetition of the pilot, this is a more subtle one, reminding us of the different backgrounds for Caroline and Max’s characters (and giving us some—fairly cliché—hints about where Max comes from). I’ll take the approach of this episode over last week’s any time, but I’d much rather have the characters doing, y’know, something new entirely. On the other hand, I’ll probably just have to accept that that won’t happen for a while, this being a new show on a network known for being hyper-controlling about this sort of thing.
Also very odd is the show’s insistence on auditioning new supporting cast members, as if it realizes that the biggest problem it has presently is the complete and utter lack of supporting help Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs are getting. The guys in the diner are all pretty game—and I love me some Garrett Morris—but they’ve all been asked to play ridiculous stereotypes, and the show doesn’t seem terribly interested in deepening their character back stories at all. (This series is crying out for a between-season-one-and-season-two retool wherein the location is shifted to Caroline and Max’s just-opened cupcake shop. I half expect it to happen.) Matthew Moy at least got some jokes that had nothing to do with his accent tonight and, instead, with his character’s guileless nature, but it wasn’t a storyline so much as it was just another thing that happened. The show either needs to commit to the diner and deepening the various characters there—the way Taxi filled in the various stereotypes in the garage over its first season—or it needs to ditch it entirely.
What it can’t do is keep auditioning new supporting cast members, as it seems to be doing every week. Tonight, we got Max’s friend down at the Goodwill (fine) and her bartender friend/inevitable love interest (trying too hard but basically okay). I doubt either of these characters would add anything to the show, but adding on to the others the show has already introduced, it simultaneously feels like the show is trying to build out its Brooklyn world and flailing about for any sort of supporting cast that will land. It’s obvious that King and Whitney Cummings thought through the two central women when creating the show and didn’t have much beyond that. What’s hurting right now is the inability to come up with anything beyond that. Morris and Moy are both fine actors who could probably play some substantial material—or even deliver better jokes—but the show refuses to give them much of anything to do.
And yet I still found this episode mostly enjoyable, largely because King and his writers do know that what works is Max and Caroline. The episode focuses so tightly on them because it’s just fun to watch the two bounce off of each other, and where prior episodes made Caroline too much of a dim bulb at times, this one is much more comfortable letting her get some good jokes and letting her be sardonically funny as well. Behrs and Dennings are the heart of what’s going to make this show work, and even if you can feel King and the writers frantically pulling at the scaffolding to see if they can make the rest of the show fit the two central characters, they’re sturdy enough to be a foundation for now, and their relationship will keep the show from crumbling for at least a handful of additional episodes.
- The only thing I laughed at tonight was Max’s voice for Chestnut, but I grinned at a bunch of other stuff. The show’s already tossing Dennings stuff that isn’t just sarcastic asides. (Of course, I knew literally every joke before it even came, so that would account for the lack of laughter as well.)
- I have no idea how differently my opinions of this episode might have been without having been to the taping. I daresay I liked the taping better, but that would make a vague kind of sense, as the show gave more story—including something like “runners” for Moy and Morris’ characters. That said, the bar scene was a mess at the taping and remained a mess tonight, a collection of somewhat amusing gags with no throughline holding them together. Plus, it’s obvious that there’s no good reason for the characters to be there, and the bartender is coming on a little strong in “here’s a potential recurring character” land. I’m amused the producers left the “I learned it from The Wire” line in, when the audience at my taping couldn’t have been more baffled by that line (the sole person laughing in the audience is probably my friend). I also like how you can immediately tell the transition from the studio audience to a sweetened laugh track in the “filmed on a studio set” scenes (such as the one locating the nail place).
- If there’s a character I’m not horribly interested in—even as some sort of potentially interesting alternate version of himself—it’s Jonathan Kite’s Oleg, who doesn’t seem to add much of anything to anything. I can at least see versions of the Morris and Moy characters that would work. I’m not sure where Oleg would ever fit into things.