While I still hold to the theory that you can’t really judge how good a comedy is going to be based on a pilot episode, there are some ways to put a new show in context and get a taste for its aesthetic prior to airing. For instance, prior to watching the pilot episode of NBC’s new comedy Whitney, I watched Money Shot, the stand-up special of showrunner and lead actress Whitney Cummings. I thought it was a dependably funny routine, centered around her observations on how relationships make perfectly normal people go insane and offering an updated take on the differences between men and women. I enjoyed how she was willing to be unflattering, such as describing herself on a stripper pole as “a European boy on a jungle gym,” and she had some solid punchlines as well (“Men have all these skills? Give me the back seat of a Taurus and some Sutter Home, I can duplicate!”).
So I was prepared for a fairly brash voice, an incredibly unromantic view of traditional relationships and an unapologetically crude sense of humor at times. What I wasn’t prepared for – though maybe I should have been after seeing a few of the promos – was just how grating, unpleasant and at times dated the pilot episode of Whitney felt like. Even with the qualifier that this is her first foray into network television, and the fact that there were several flashes of Cummings’ sharp wit, this was a pilot episode it took a great deal of fortitude to actually sit down and watch to the end.
As the title suggests, Whitney starts Whitney Cummings as “Whitney Cummings,” an abrasive photographer in a long-term relationship with boyfriend Alex (Chris D’Elia). With their three-year anniversary coming up, Whitney is asking questions about just how satisfying their relationship is, questions not made any easier being bracketed by friends who are either divorced or in the honeymoon phase of their own relationships. She’s determined to keep the relationship together though, plowing ahead regardless of her disdain for dating conventions and inability to tolerate fools.
Right from the start, Whitney feels a little bit off as a show, mainly because it’s got “throwback” written all over it. Not only is it a show based around a stand-up comedian playing a fictionalized version of themselves, it’s also shot multi-camera in front of a live studio audience* with a laugh track after every punchline and visual gag. I’m not saying this formula can’t work (I watched Cheers over the summer and loved it immensely) but at the tail end of a schedule that includes Community, Parks and Recreation and The Office, it feels like a refugee from two decades ago. I don’t know why NBC would plug this into their Thursday lineup, though my theory is it’s step one in their dark plan to make it 1997 again by way of science or magic.
*I will give the show credit for one thing: in the opening, Cummings actually says “Whitney is filmed before a live studio audience. Yeah, that’s right.” A little bit of self-awareness can go a long way.
Though a large part of the reason that it feels atonal could be that it’s not very good at all. This is Cummings’ first effort creating and writing a sitcom and every inch of it groans under the effort of trying too hard to translate her stand-up to scripting. Material is broken down from longer routines into rapid-fire quips, which feel abrupt as conversational punchlines, and even worse by the necessity of giving the studio audience time to respond. They at least enjoyed it more than I did – I don’t think I laughed once during the wedding that took up the first third of the episode, certainly didn’t laugh when they were in a sex shop, and was rendered stone-faced by the final scene in a hospital.
It gets better when the show steps back from this routine, mostly when Cummings and D’Elia are simply interacting with each other. The opening scene where the two are getting ready for the wedding together has a playful feeling that the rest of the show lacks, and debates on outfits and their sex life feel mostly like conversations actual couples would have, if shorter on punchlines. The episode’s most talked-about scene where Whitney dresses in a sexy nurse’s outfit, only to have D’Elia provide his insurance card and fill out paperwork (“Do you really need my employer’s contact information?”) does have some genuine laughs in it as well, particularly in a spectacular pratfall at the end. With a lot of shows sabotaged by chemistry, these two actually have it – a good sign for a relationship-based sitcom.
And the show better find a way for these two to keep monopolizing the screentime, because my God the supporting cast is dreadful. Cummings said in one interview that it was interesting to see elements of her stand-up material being said by other actresses, and having seen her stand-up in its original context I can say the transition isn’t handled well at all. Case in point is Whitney’s divorced friend Roxanne (Rhea Seehorn), who literally walks into the former’s apartment without knocking a la Friends, swigging a bottle of wine and entering a stand-up routine on how hard dating is. There’s also a cop friend (Dan O’Brien) who’s playing the Barney archetype from How I Met Your Mother with extra douchebag levels, Maulik Panchouly playing a whipped boyfriend even more sycophantic than his character on 30 Rock, and Jane Kaczmarek as Whitney’s mother being reliably dominant but shamefully token in her one scene*.
*I’ll cut the show a mulligan on this one though, given that Kaczmarek was a late addition to the cast and her scenes had to be added to the pilot. Let’s just say though it’s going to take a lot of work to make her seem like a real person.
So where does Whitney go from here? Well, based on Money Shot, it’s not too much of a stretch to guess what the plot lines of future episodes will revolve around. Cummings’ routine included stretches on how she has imaginary fights with her boyfriend that make the real ones worse, how she involuntarily blocks out that snooping is an invasion of privacy, that the silent treatment never works and the solution is talking non-stop, and a very detailed description of how sad it is when people try to spice up their sex lives with what they see in porn. I laughed at least once in each of these routines, and I could see every one of these as a plot driving an episode of Whitney.
But do I want to watch those episodes? Not if they’re going to be like this one was. This was an episode of television that tried too hard and ground on my nerves for more that sixty percent of the time it was on the air, both in terms of its cast and its jokes. Going back to my original point, I’m prepared to give every comedy a few episodes to find its way and iron out its rough edges, but of the comedies I’ve extended that courtesy to Whitney‘s certainly got more work to do than most.
- As much as it pains me to, I’m probably going to give this one four episodes as well – it’s in such proximity to two of my other favorite shows that it’s not hard to miss, and it’s a half-hour comedy so it’s also not too hard to stomach.
- Winner for this episode’s most tasteless line: “Mark went home with a pregnant woman. He asked if that counts as a threesome.”
- “Wow, you’re on fire! What are you going to close with, blackface?”
- “I’m not Daniel Day-Lewis, I just want to get laid.”
- “Nurse to nurse, I have to get back there.” “Nurse to stripper, have a seat.”
- “I love you so much that I don’t want to marry you.”