This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff, who’ll be reviewing the series week by week, and Erik Adams look at 2 Broke Girls.
Todd VanDerWerff: 2 Broke Girls is my favorite network pilot this year, and if it weren’t for Pan Am, it would be my favorite network pilot by a fair margin. It sets up its two central characters quite well over the course of the pilot. The central setting of a rundown diner in Brooklyn is at once completely familiar and just new enough to feel intriguing. It’s not afraid to completely ditch an Odd Couple-esque premise that would feel constraining after only half the pilot (most shows would take half a season to get rid of that premise, if they ever did). And, most importantly, it made me laugh. It made me laugh quite a bit, the only comedy pilot this year to actually make me chuckle more than once or twice.
But I’m an easy lay when it comes to comedy pilots. I’m just looking for something that shows some idea of how to build comically interesting characters and worlds, because those are the types of pilots that usually grow into good comedies. Because TV comedy is so dependent on characters, comedy pilots are usually well-advised to tone down the hard jokes and spend more time letting us get to know these people and their world. And, sure, Kat Dennings’ Max, the central character of the show, veers a bit toward sarcastic girl cliché, but, man, Dennings plays the hell out of her. The same goes for Beth Behrs’ Caroline. I was unfamiliar with her before watching this show, but by the end of the pilot, I was a fan. With a duo this good at the show’s center, I have to believe the show’s writers will eventually craft a solid comedy—maybe even a great one—around them.
And yet this has been one of the more controversial pilots of the fall season, both among our TV Club writers and among my critic friends. Plenty of us really like the show. But plenty of people find it merely okay or actively bad. And here’s the weird thing: A lot of the most common criticisms leveled against the show are criticisms I actually agree with. (This is not a perfect pilot by any means, just one with lots of promise.) Yet when it comes down to it, I guess, they just don’t bother me as much as they do some critics. Erik, you’re a bit more lukewarm on this pilot than I am. What are your issues? And do you agree with any of the things I like about it?
Erik Adams: My main issue with the pilot is how hard it strains for some of its laughs. A lot of the punchlines sound downright tortured, even coming from actresses as talented as Dennings and Behrs. Take the scene prominently featured in CBS’ “extended preview” of the series, where Max gives a serious dressing down to a pair of “hipsters” (ugh, that word) at the diner. It starts out great (Max volleying the patron’s condescending snapping), then quickly veers into terrible when she drops the insult “I wear knit hats when it’s cold out—you wear knit hats because of Coldplay.” Cute—and definitely ball-busting to any underemployed, self-serious type who hates to admit that he loves “The Scientist”—but it’s oh so overwrought. The exchange does a solid job of showing Max’s take-no-bullshit attitude, but it’s a little too eager to impress us with its cultural references and casual use of the word “vagina.”
With a lead in from How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls is positioned to be CBS’ new “look, we’re not just for old people any more” sitcom. Unfortunately, its Williamsburg milieu has the markings of an older generation looking in. This yields some bizarre dividends—the scene with Max’s boyfriend’s band is straight out of the “Grungies” spinoff that never came to be—but if I’m going to end up caring about the characters in this series, it’s not because they know what Arcade Fire is.
That said, I agree with you that Dennings and Behrs are the strongest part of the pilot. Not only for their performances, but for their dynamic, which has some of our critical colleagues wondering if Max and Caroline can be the next Lucy and Ethel. (Or Mary and Rhoda. Or Laverne and Shirley… ) The best choice the writers have made so far was to put an Intel brain inside Caroline’s Chanel exterior. Behrs only has to play the little lost rich girl for part of the pilot—elsewhere, she’s given these shrewd, cunning motives that are brilliantly betrayed by her haughty delivery. It’s an odd fit at first ,but those characteristics eventually click with Max, whose street-wise demeanor masks a touch of cluelessness and emotional vulnerability—something I look forward to seeing Dennings tap into down the line. Do you think this relationship has the chance to blossom into the next great female buddy duo, Todd? And will it get that chance in light of the heavy bit of plot that’s introduced at the end of the pilot? (A question to ponder a few episodes down the line: How quickly is that plot going to be dropped?)
Todd: I actually think the plot twist at the end of tonight’s pilot will be with us for quite a while. Like the revelation that Robin wasn’t the mother at the end of the How I Met Your Mother pilot (though nowhere near that twisty), the turn gives the show an overriding goal and a destination to reach, and that’s one of the things that excites me about it: This isn’t just a goofy sitcom; if done well, it will also be a journey for the two central characters. Plus, it’s not the sort of thing that will be too confining, I hope. It’s enough of a generalized story turn enough to provide forward momentum without locking everyone in to something that won’t leave room to maneuver. To me, it’s always better for a show to feel like it’s heading somewhere, and that’s a feeling the Broke pilot provides in spades.
That said, I’ll agree with you that some of the dialogue in the first half of the pilot is a little shaky. There’s almost too much of an attempt to prove the show’s hipster bona fides by dropping in cultural references and snarky references to vaginas. (CBS, in its infinite wisdom, has mostly chosen to promote the show via the much more crass, much less amusing first half of the pilot, rather than the more character-oriented second half.) Once the pilot starts resting on Dennings and Behrs’ considerable chemistry, it can overcome almost anything. But it takes it a while to get there, and those first 10 minutes have their painful moments (though Dennings is always a delight).
It’s clear how much CBS has riding on this show. It’s their highest-testing comedy pilot in years (reportedly), and the network needs a young hit, now that all of its shows are at the five-season mark (or well past it). The Big Bang Theory should hold up for a while, but it’s trapped over on Thursdays, while Two And A Half Men and How I Met Your Mother both seem likely to end before the 2013 fall season begins. So that means that 2 Broke Girls has been fussed over within an inch of its life and designed to appeal directly to the younger generations that don’t always watch CBS. And while that means some clumsy cultural references, it also means good things, like the casting of Dennings and Behrs. So let me ask you this: Did you feel the attempts to appeal to younger demographics—particularly through smuttiness—helped or hurt the pilot more overall? And, while we’re at it, let’s tackle the other big charge thrown against the pilot: Do you think the pilot indulges too much in caricatures—both racial and otherwise? I have a theory about this, but I’d like to hear your thoughts first.
Erik: I’m split on the pilot’s obvious efforts at courting a young audience. On the one hand, all of its attempts to reflect life among the recent crop of Brooklyn bohemians seem two or three years behind the curve—and anything that doesn’t make specific reference to a touchstone of that culture feels like it’s drawn from the disaffected youth of the last few generations. That’ll probably help older viewers relate to Max and Caroline’s world—hippie or hipster, the neighborhoods with cultural cachet have always been sketchy—but it might alienate the members of the target demographic. That broadens the appeal of 2 Broke Girls, but it also makes it seem like a less sincere attempt to make humor from the failures and aspirations (and the failed aspirations and aspirational failures) of its target audience.
That’s a target audience that’s been increasingly wooed away from the traditional multicamera sitcom by single-camera shows that tell funnier jokes faster while peddling cultural references with tremendous confidence. (Think of the out-of-nowhere Neutral Milk Hotel name-drop during the last season of Parks And Recreation.) One way that 2 Broke Girls can break through the preconceived notions set by the Friends clones that nearly killed one of television’s most reliable formats: A raunchy sense of humor! The pilot is entirely unafraid of its characters’ sexuality, in a way that’ll probably yield a laugh riot of a press release from the Parents Television Council by midseason. Sometimes this works (a hilarious gag in the third act involving a tambourine), other times it doesn’t (Caroline stands between Max’s dirtbag boyfriend, Robbie, and an overflowing sink. Caroline: “You’re getting me wet.” Robbie: “That’s the point.”). It gives a good goosing to the staid conventions of the multicamera sitcom, and co-creators Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings definitely know from dirty, funny things. The 2 Broke Girls pilot is a more effective distillation of Cummings’ “beauty queen with a dirty mouth” schtick than her eponymous NBC series, and if I’d have to place a bet on which show draws the most positive notices for injecting lewdness into a primetime standby, it’s 2 Broke Girls.
But this isn’t a show that’s going to get by on jokes about unidentified stains. 2 Broke Girls shows the most promise as a character-driven show (with enough overriding plot to propel the series forward)—so it’s troubling that all the characters who aren’t Max and Caroline are drawn so broadly in the pilot. That’s partially due to the fact that this is just the pilot; there’s only 22 minutes of show here, so why waste precious time fleshing out Robbie or Oleg the cook when it would be better spent developing the relationship between Max and Caroline? It’s unfortunate that Matthew Moy and Garrett Morris are given a bunch of jokes that center on stereotypes (Moy’s character, an Asian immigrant, struggles with the basics of English grammar; Morris plays the archetypal aging black hepcat), but that’s not to say we’ll eventually learn things about their characters that have nothing to do with their ethnicities.
Yet, when I think about the one-dimensional characterizations in the pilot, I return to the image of Robbie and his bandmates, seated on the couch and bobbing their heads in unison to some generic rock instrumental. And I laugh, because it’s cartoony, and sometimes cartoony aspects have their place in a series like this one. In my ideal vision of the series, King, Cummings, and their writing staff craft a live-action cartoon world for 2 Broke Girls, where the dynamic between Dennings and Behrs serves as a grounded core. Current-day Brooklyn—or at least the version of it that the series projects—is pretty much a cartoon world to begin with. Give the auxiliary characters a touch more shading, maintain a balanced sense of raunch, and 2 Broke Girls could be the show today’s young adults look back on in 20 years time and think, “Yikes, we were such assholes back then—but at least we were funny assholes.”
So this is obviously not the “theory” to which you were alluding, right Todd?
Todd: VanDerWerff’s Universal Theory of Pilots states: If one character in a pilot is well-developed, the writers probably have a good idea of who the other characters are and will develop them over the course of the first season. To that end, I’m willing to give any show with as well-developed of characters as Max and Caroline a lot of leeway. In many cases, this has served me well—I thought the only truly well-developed character in the first episode of Breaking Bad was Walter White, but that show very rapidly began filling in the others in his life. In a few, it’s backfired on me—I thought Glee would be fine, thanks to how the pilot treated Will, Rachel, and Finn so successfully. Instead, all of those characters were shadows of themselves by the end of season one, rather than continuing to dimensionalize, and the series never did much with a lot of its ensemble. So, yes, this isn’t an iron-clad rule. But it’s worked often enough to make me feel good about bringing it up. It’s why I also feel pretty good about recommending Pan Am, for instance.
So, yes, it concerns me that all of the supporting cast falls into caricatures of either the ethnic or racial variety. But when Cummings said at TCA that she knows more about them than she could tell in the pilot, I more or less believe her, and I’ll give her 13 episodes or so to prove it. I’m not a big fan of stereotype humor, but as you point out, it does sometimes make for a quick, cheap laugh. (For instance, the “dumb guy” stereotype Max’s boyfriend falls into is one that sitcoms would seem to have beaten into the ground, but it’s one that still reliably gets me to laugh, which is why they keep pounding on it, I guess.) And more importantly, Broke feels like it has a point of view, something to say about the sorry state so many people in our generation find themselves in and the ways that communities of friends can stand in for family and spring up when you least expect them. I don’t know that this series has anything profound to say, but it does feel like the character of Max, especially, comes from a real, honest place, a place that King, Cummings, and Dennings are all contributing to and one that I can’t wait to keep visiting.
I’m not going to go all out and say that this pilot is going to make everybody laugh. It made me laugh, but what makes me laugh is pretty weird sometimes. And it’s certainly a work in progress. But there are things in here that work as well as any comedy pilot I’ve seen in years, and there’s stuff that, with time to grow, could make it one of the best comedies on TV. There are a lot of comedies you could say that about this pilot season, granted, and it’s easy enough to imagine an abysmal version of Broke that exists by the finale. But for now, I’m going to say that this is a show filled with promise, and I’m more than excited to see where it goes next.
Todd’s grade: B+
Erik’s grade: C+