Thursday, September 29, 2011

The House that Tina Fey Built: Women Take Charge of the New Fall Sitcoms of 2011

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 29, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Tina Fey
We are now firmly in the second week of the new fall TV season, and so far one thing seems clear: quirky and complicated women seem to be taking over our airwaves. Beginning in mid-October, ABC will offer two new comedies with a male perspective, Last Man Standing and Man Upboth promising to look at the modern beleaguered man. But for now, September is awash with new sitcoms boasting an array of strong, funny women: Zooey Deschanel in New Girl on Fox; Kathryn Hahn in Free Agents, and Whitney Cummings in Whitney on NBC; and Kat Dennings in 2 Broke Girls on CBS.
  
Strong female characters are of course nothing new in the history of the American sitcom: Gertrude Berg (The Goldbergs) and Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy) basically invented the situation comedy in the early 1950s, playing women who were brazen, funny, and regularly willing to make themselves the joke. But as the TV mother and wife evolved through the decades, fallible and funny women characters were generally replaced by the long-suffering and inordinately pretty wives of fallible and funny men – roles like Mary Richards, Maude Finlay, and Roseanne Conner became the exception instead of the rule. No doubt emboldened by the critical and ratings successes of Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), executives have clearly decided that perhaps it is time to return to their roots. And generally speaking, the viewers are all the better for it – though as usual, not all the new shows are equally worth our time.

Zooey Deschanel in New Girl
New Girl (Fox)
This may be the best of the lot. Indie icon and singer/songwriter/actress Zooey Deschanel stars as Jessica Day, a bubbly kindergarten teacher who, after a tumultuous break-up with her long-time boyfriend, moves into a new apartment with three male roommates. Owing more to Sarah Silverman than Tina Fey, Deschanel’s Jess is a likeable, if eccentric and sometimes annoying, woman-child – Jess is goofy, over-emotional, profoundly socially awkward, and has a tendency to spontaneously break into song. Though her too-big glasses and baby talk might be initially off-putting, Deschanel and her character both have a unique way of worming their way into your heart.

But as charmingly dysfunctional as Jess is, the real strength of the series lies in the chemistry of the supporting cast, especially the new men in Jess’ life: Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and Nick (Jake Johnson). Schmidt is a stereotypical ‘player’ who is always on the make, and who will take any excuse to rip off his shirt. But even in these first two episodes, Greenfield’s Schmidt has already become far more than the superficial ‘douchebag’ he was advertised as. The pilot episode featured Damon Wayans, Jr. as the third roommate—that first episode was filmed this past May, when the fate of Wayans’ new show, Happy Endings, was still unclear. When Happy Endings was renewed for a second season, Wayans’ character was replaced by newcomer Lamorne Morris, as Winston. But even with this early cast shake-up, this is the strongest comedic ensemble of the new season. 

The dialogue is smart and the relationships appear genuine. The writers already seem to know that the charm of the situation lies in the easy Platonic chemistry between Jess and the rest of the male cast, as each respond to Jessica’s innocent naïveté with differing levels of brotherly protectiveness. My only concern right now is a lingering fear that the writers are grooming Nick, the sensitive roommate, as a love interest for Jessica. This show has the potential to avoid many of the stereotypical tropes of gender-oriented TV, and I can only hope that it lives up to that promise.

Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn in Free Agents
Free Agents (NBC)
Co-created and produced by John Enbom (Party Down) and based on a dark and short-lived 2009 British sitcom of the same name, Free Agents is a workplace romantic comedy with two damaged lead characters.  Hank Azaria (Huff, The Simpsons) plays Alex, a recently divorced and emotionally shaky PR executive, and Kathryn Hahn plays Helen, a co-worker who is still dealing with the untimely death of her fiancé a year earlier.  The series opens with the two negotiating a drunken one-night stand and the lingering attraction it has awakened between them. But neither of them is quite ready to enter into a new relationship, and struggle to remain “just friends.” Though the show still seems unsure how dark it will let itself become, the chemistry between the two is comfortable and engaging, and seems to consist of mutual respect and affection laced with playfully cutting criticism.

Anthony Head (reprising his role in the UK original) makes a strong showing as their charming rogue of a boss—though the rest of the ensemble, including The Daily Show’s Al Madrigal, still need some time to get their bearings. Still, after a slightly wobbly pilot episode, Free Agents firmly secured its footing by the second episode, and wisely leaned more heavily on the talents of its two stars. There is an effortless charm to Azaria and Hahn, and in a sea of late 20-somethings, it is surprisingly refreshing to see characters above the age of 35. Like its two leads, Free Agents is guileless and straightforward, and eminently watchable.

Whitney Cummings and Chris D`Elia in Whitney
Whitney (NBC)
I have to confess that I didn’t know who Whitney Cummings was before the new TV season was announced, but this successful stand-up comic could be poised to take over the small screen this year. Co-creator and star of her eponymous sitcom on NBC, Cummings also has a hand in CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, which she co-created and co-produces with Sex & the City writer and director, Michael Patrick King.

Filmed in front a live audience, formally speaking Whitney is a traditional multi-camera sitcom. With stories inspired by her stand-up material, Whitney Cummings plays a woman named Whitney Cummings, a 28-year old woman with a tendency to speak her mind, and no interest in marrying her long-time live-in boyfriend Alex (Chris D’Elia), who is equally happy to remain together, and unmarried. (As Alex puts it: “I love you. And I hate moving.”)

Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle) makes a brief but memorable appearance as Whitney’s mother in the pilot episode, but the rest of the ensemble unfortunately have yet to distinguish themselves. When the story series focuses on Whitney and Alex, the show succeeds in being both real and funny, but in the pilot, her friends – the bitter, constantly drinking recent divorcee Roxanne (Rhea Seehorn), the too-happily partnered Lily (Zoe Lister-Jones), and the superficial Barney Stinson clone Mark (Dan O'Brien) – come off like exiles from other, weaker, sitcoms.

Cummings and D’Elia, a comedian in his own right, make a great on-screen couple, but the show struggles when focus shifts off them. I’m interested enough to keep watching for now, but the supporting characters need to find their groove soon.

Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs in 2 Broke Girls
2 Broke Girls (CBS)
I really wanted to like this one. Really I did. 2 Broke Girls wants to be class-based female buddy comedy. It stars Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) as Max, a working-class waitress who meets former rich girl Caroline (Beth Behrs) – a trust fund baby whose father has recently bankrupted the family through a Madoff-like ponzi scheme – at a Brooklyn diner. On paper, it sounds like a great idea: Kat Dennings has a lot of big screen charisma, and the recent economic downturn seems ripe for satire. And frankly, for all the male buddy comedies out there, television doesn’t commit to the female version of the formula very often – Mary and Rhoda, Laverne and Shirley, and Kate and Allie are probably the most recent examples. Unfortunately, the show is far too heavy on broad off-colour gags and far too short on character. Despite the prevalence of strong single-camera comedies on television, multi-camera laugh-track sitcoms can still work quite well (Chuck Lorre’s The Big Bang Theory executes this formula with consistent success), but on 2 Broke Girls, the laugh track is far too insistent, and the novelty of the extremely explicit sex humour wears thin about 10 minutes into the pilot episode. For all of the originality the show promised, it is unfortunately all too familiar.

Dennings’ still got charm, but after two episodes, there is little else to bring me back to the series. This may well be one of the few television shows that I will actually stop watching.