(Editor’s note: Now that we’re a few episodes into the fall season, it’s time for me to apply my test of four episodes – previously described as my “televitmus test” to some of the new shows I’ve taken the time to watch. I’ll describe how the show has built on the things I liked about it starting out, whether or not it’s continued the things I disliked, and what’s surprised me in either a good or bad way, and pass my final judgment on whether or not I’ll keep watching. Next up: NBC’s Whitney.)
When I reviewed the pilot episode of Whitney a couple of months ago, it probably came across that I was not a fan of the show as it seemed to conceive itself. Despite some initial goodwill towards show creator/subject Whitney Cummings from a reasonably entertaining stand-up special, the episode as a whole felt like something that had been kept in cryogenic storage from NBC’s glory days, where it could stick mediocre shows on after Friends or Frasier and not really care about the results. That said, I was prepared to cut the show a mulligan starting out: NBC has so many problems I couldn’t begrudge them what seemed like a safe bet, and most sitcom pilots are average to terrible starting out.
But after four episodes? Mulligan is no longer cut, because the minor improvements Whitney has shown don’t even come close to making it a watchable show. It might be trying to be this year’s Friends, but the only thing I’m comparing it to is Outsourced: a bad sitcom that only seems worse amongst the network’s brilliant yet lower-rated sitcoms. In three subsequent episodes – “First Date,” “Silent Treatment” and “A Decent Proposal” – the show has failed to register anything in me beyond annoyance, and insured that I won’t be watching it again in weeks to come.
Since the show bears her name and her creative import, it’s probably best to start with the biggest impression it’s left with me after four episodes: I now hate Whitney Cummings. Or at least the fictionalized version of herself she’s playing, who after four episodes I find myself asking why any guy in their right mind would be in a relationship with her for three years. Without exception, her behavior throughout these episodes has been shrill and irrational, taking slights real or imagined and spinning them off into elaborate procedures a sane man or woman would bolt from. Plots center around her experimenting with the silent treatment and non-stop talking after Nick looks at another woman, forcing him to take her on a “real” first date and proving that she’s really a romantic in ridiculously grandiose fashion. In each instance, she commits to the routine with almost sociopathic dedication, only for Alex to wryly get through her hardened core and appreciate the things that work.
Not that every sitcom plot needs to be about multiple timelines or a fancy party to make it entertaining, but the issue with Whitney episodes is that there’s really nothing else to the show beyond these exploits. The Onion recently mocked it in their TV listings as “Whitney makes three observations about couples, five observations about dating, and 10 observations about relationships,” and if ever there was an example of funny because it’s true this is it. The show simply has no personality and no ambitions beyond doing what it’s already offering, and while that might be enough for some to me it just feels like a show that’s discarding what little potential it had in the opening.
There is of course an easy solution toward making a good sitcom, if you don’t have a long-term goal or ambitious plot development: just give it a cast of characters you enjoy spending time with and watching the interactions of. Does Whitney have that cast? No. What it has instead is a cast of characters I very badly want to cross over to The Walking Dead so they can be quickly devoured in the most graphic fashion – they remain part of the show only to deliver modified Cummings punchlines and prove her points on contemporary relationships. And when they try to have character traits, as with Dan O’Brien’s borderline pervert/police officer Mark, they somehow become even worse. It’s not an ensemble, it’s a grab bag of character types without the character.
I don’t know if I should blame the material or the actors for this feeling, but certainly neither one is helping the other. While Rhea Seehorn’s Roxanne* was the one I hated the most in the pilot, that distaste has now shifted to Zoe Lister-Jones as Lily, who is just so gratingly impossible to please that I want Maulik Panchouly’s** character Neal to dump her and run as far away as he can. Seehorn at least seems to acknowledge that the material she’s being given isn’t great – giving a half-hearted sour-faced reaction to making her Facebook life look more exciting – but she’s still playing that material and not making much of an effort to seem like it’s not just an adapted piece of stand-up.
*It’s a shame Community aired its terrific “Remedial Chaos Theory” after I reviewed the pilot, because a looped GIF of Jeff Winger shooting down every karaoke attempt of Britta’s would be perfectly applied to my opinion of this character.
**If I feel sorry for anyone on this show, it’s certainly Maulik Panchouly. I can understand him making long-term plans given that 30 Rock is probably on its last legs, but his obsequious nature here just stretches out what worked very well in small doses of Jonathan.
So is there anything left to recommend it? Well, Chris D’Elia remains the only good part of the cast (even though I still question his character’s sanity in indulging Whitney’s relationship tactics) and his laid-back performance does manage to offset whatever grating member of the cast he happens to be appearing with. And I’d be lying to say I didn’t laugh at all – as HitFix’s TV critic/glutton for punishment Daniel Fienberg pointed out in the context of Feces My Dad Says, if you watch enough episodes of something eventually you will laugh, and that did happen on occasion here. I did think Whitney holding a samurai sword and having Alex dubbing her lines was an amusing gag, and I also laughed at her trying very hard not to make a fellatio joke after being set up for it.
But that’s nowhere near enough to keep going. I don’t like Cummings, I don’t like any of the characters, I don’t like 90 percent of the story and jokes: there is nothing here for me. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been in a long-term (or short-term) relationship for years and therefore I can’t find any of the jokes true to life, but if Whitney‘s depiction of relationships is anything close to the real thing its only service is serving as an argument for the single life. It’s still young enough that it could pull a Happy Endings or Parks and Recreation and find a new groove, but I’m not sticking around to watch it find that groove.
- In light of Whitney‘s terribleness, I find myself entirely unsurprised that people seem to like it – it delivers much better ratings than Community or Parks and Recreation despite being at the end of the lineup, and NBC liked what it saw enough to order a back nine. If this show survives and those don’t, I will spew invective the likes of which has rarely been seen.
- I did try watching the fifth episode out of some perverse curiosity, but shut it off after ten minutes. Though I did like it tiptoeing towards meta territory when Neal comments on a live feed of Whitney’s apartment that no one on TV can afford a place that big, Whitney’s behavior crossed over from bitchy to psychotic and I fled to a safer place.
- I’m actually glad that Jane Kaczmarek hasn’t appeared since the pilot, since I’m sure they would feed her dialogue that she couldn’t do anything with despite being an old pro at this sort of thing. My memories of Malcolm in the Middle are fuzzy, but still positive, and I’d rather they not poison the well.
- Both Erik Adams from The A.V. Club and I agree on this: given the fact that Whitney‘s cold opens have no laugh track and were clearly shot without the studio audience, the smug “filmed before a live studio audience… you heard me” along with the title screen is disingenuous at best.