The NBC sitcom counter-backlash

I see that Salon’s Willa Paskin has written an article about how Whitney has improved, thereby saving me from fearing I was going crazy. I had been telling people that it was one of the better new comedies of the season – a very backhanded compliment, admittedly, given what this season has been like – and getting genuinely horrified reactions.

Not that Whitney is a first-rate show; it is not. Paskin’s problem with it is that it’s not funny enough; my problem is a combination of that, its still-weak supporting characters, and its slow pacing. (The fact that NBC/Universal has not done this type of show in some years seems very evident. The same network’s Are You There, Chelsea?, produced by Warner Brothers, is a much worse show, but it has a surface slickness and speed. Whitney actually gets a certain odd charm from the fact that it doesn’t have that kind of slickness, but it also has a lot of oddly paced scenes.) But what it’s always had going for it is Chris D’Elia, who has turned in the best performance on a new comedy show. His delivery is refreshingly un-hammy; he gets the most out of everything he’s given and still resembles an actual person. (I also have to give some credit to the writers for that; actors can’t create a convincing character alone. Beth Behrs was very good casting on 2 Broke Girls, but the writing after the pilot has been so bad that whenever I see it, she’s hamming it up, unable to put together a convincing character out of the lines she’s been given.) Cummings is not the natural actor D’Elia is, and from what I’ve seen the show has had problems figuring her out: it seemed to start with the assumption that we would all love her because she was a tell-it-like-it-is person, and has had to adjust to the fact that neither she nor the character are terribly likable.

But it did adjust, and the relationship between Cummings and D’Elia’s characters feels, there’s that word again, real. They’re a convincing couple, two people who get on each other’s (and sometimes our) nerves but really do seem to be together because they enjoy each other’s company. In a season where most new comedies have been unable to create characters and relationships that seem remotely real – instead giving us Zooey Deschanel or the ham-it-up brigade on 2 Broke Girls – I have to consider it one of the more enjoyable shows, even though I cringe at some moments. (There were two new comedies this season that seem to me like they really know what they’re doing: Suburgatory, and Last Man Standing. Everything else seemed to range from strange combinations of good and bad, to outright amateurish shows.) I feel like it’s the sort of show that would benefit from a great big re-tool, since the premise they have set up is simply not strong enough to spin off a lot of stories. (Cummings’ character would work better if she were taken down a peg more often, but because the premise has her as the Alpha Dog among a group of pathetic friends, this can’t happen that often. It needs what one writer has called a “contrary character,” someone who we can root against instead of rooting against the lead.) It won’t happen, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it get a chance to try.

I don’t quite get why this show became the most-hated in a comedy season that wasn’t much good all the way around. It inspired quite passionate hatred in some circles; on the iMDB message board for it, there’s at least two people who seem to spend all their time writing post after post rooting for its cancellation and hating anyone who likes it. My theory about why this is (apart from the obvious answer – “because it really is terrible”) would be that it was a combination of the obnoxious over-saturated marketing campaign and its presence on the Thursday night lineup, where it was considered an evil interloper. Once it was moved to Wednesdays, it was no longer hated as much, and its ratings were only a little bit lower (because the post-Office slot, though still theoretically the best comedy slot NBC has, isn’t really that good a slot any more; it’s not helping Up All Night much either). Not that I think it’s wrong to dislike it; you have to be in an indulgent mood to forgive its weaknesses. But I do think it got more intense hate than it deserved, and that might be a sign that NBC’s marketing campaign backfired. If it’s renewed for a second season, a 50/50 shot at this point, the network had better promote it as a comedy about a couple rather than the one-woman show it seemed to be in the original marketing.

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