Saturday, March 31, 2012

Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 and Bent: Comedy is Alive and Well in the Midseason

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 31, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Krysten Ritter and James Van Der Beek in Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23

With the television season running year-round these days, the midseason is no longer the networks’ dumping ground for shows not strong enough to make the cut in the fall. Today I’m looking at two new, but very different comedies which more than prove the point that great television doesn’t always begin in September. (Let’s not forget that Parks and Recreation and even All in the Family were midseason replacements when they were first launched!) ABC’s Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 will premiere on April 11, and NBC’s Bent is already more than halfway through its short, six-episode freshman season.

It might be fascinating to speculate on what conditions in Hollywood are making edgy titles more and more common (see last year’s dreadful $#*! My Dad Says and ABC’s new primetime soap, GCB – an abbreviation of “Good Christian Bitches” as Newt Gingrich recently railed about) but the good news about Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is that the title is perhaps the least interesting feature of a series with a lot to show for itself.

Dreama Walker with James Van Der Beek
On its surface, Apartment 23 is another roommates-in-Manhattan sitcom, “just like Friends,” as June (Dreama Walker, Gossip Girl) herself croons early in the pilot episode. And well, no, it turns out it’s not. The show lays out its ambitions early on by dramatically levelling that bit of naïveté. The pilot hits the ground running, with a raunchy and rather noisy sex scene. It also performs a rather fun bait and switch with a syrupy voiceover introduction that gets turned on its head by the end of the first scene. (The voiceover bit was a clever convention which did a lot to shake up some of our usual sitcom expectations, but I am hoping that’s the last we hear of it.) We meet June right off the bus from Indiana, about to turn 26, her life all planned out: a new job in New York City, a fiancé waiting in the wings, and the keys to a beautiful way-too-big-to-be-real apartment. But all that falls apart by the middle of the episode – after a deliciously quick hint of the frantic office comedy that the show won’t ever be (yet another way the series is eager to tell us precisely what kind of show it’s not), June finds herself out of a job and homeless. And just as quickly, à la New Girl, June is interviewing potential roommates so she can stay in the Big City with her now shrinking options and resources. But unlike New Girl’s Jess, who finds a group of genuinely nice guys to help her in her time of need, June is left at the mercy of her new roommate, the Machiavellian Chloe (Krysten Ritter, Breaking Bad), who – for reasons which I expect will become more fleshed out in later episodes – comes along with a 35-year old James Van Der Beek in tow, as her bff/man Friday.

Van Der Beek, in his first regular comedy series gig, plays a tweaked, horndog version of himself: the aging teen idol, with a not-so-subtle hint of sadness and despair behind his eyes (not unlike Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar movies). Almost ten years after the last episode of Dawson’s Creek, “Van Der Beek” still plays the ‘Dawson card’ to get sex, but he’s openly contemptuous of the girls who fall under its spell. It is a rather enjoyable, if not entirely novel, portrayal.

Celebrity self-parody has become rather de rigour of late. It is almost a weekly phenomenon on some sitcoms, not to mention all the cable series that make regular use of the technique to portray the darker side of show business (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, and Ricky Gervais’ new series Life’s Too Short, and of course the sublime Louie on FX). But on network TV, the practice tends to fall into the special guest star category (e.g. Wil Wheaton’s recurring role as Sheldon’s nemesis on The Big Bang Theory, LeVar Burton’s hilarious cameo on Community, or Denise Richards’ stunningly self-effacing scenes in a recent 30 Rock episode). But it is still relatively rare to see the conceit with a regular cast member on broadcast TV – especially as a supporting character.

While Matt LeBlanc’s (newly) Golden Globe-winning role as “Matt LeBlanc” on Showtimes’ Episodes is a particularly successful example of this type of casting, you have to back over a decade to find another comparable precedent on the network: Jennifer Grey’s role in another ABC sitcom It's Like, You Know... which ran for 2 short seasons from 1999-2000. (Though to be honest, all I now remember about the series were its running jokes about Grey’s much publicized nose job.)

Even though in Episodes “Matt LeBlanc” is largely a secondary character, in one 7-episode season the show succeeds in painting a sometimes dark, but not entirely unrealistic, portrait that transcended parody as such. In Apartment 23, on the other hand, ‘the Beek’ will likely stay in the NPH/Harold and Kumar zone for the time being. It is a fun feature of the show, but it (like the overtly “edgy” title) risks becoming a gimmick and a distraction if not handled well. The pilot kept the Van Der Beek material fairly organic to the larger story, so there is promise that balance will be maintained in future episodes.

But regardless of whatever contributions Apartment 23 may make to the genre of celebrity self-impersonation and meta-comedy, this is really Krysten Ritter’s show. Her sardonic temperament might at first seem like a bad fit for a comedy, but after her stunning turn as Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend in the fantastic second season of Breaking Bad, it is clear she has the talent to step out of the supporting character role. Although she has been cast mainly as “the sarcastic friend” in a number films (see, for example, Confessions of a Shopaholic), Ritter has real screen presence, and this pilot uses it to the fullest. Another particularly delightful feature of the show is Liza Lapira (Traffic Light) who plays the next door neighbour who used to be Chloe’s roommate and remains a little bit disturbingly obsessed with her. Ritter’s Chloe is a pathological liar, an opportunist, a con-woman, and a bully. The pilot establishes in the very first scene that Chloe is the kind of girl who’d “have sex with her roommate’s fiancé on her birthday cake,” and the show takes her down even further before melting her frozen heart just enough to make us less afraid she’ll murder poor Midwestern June in her sleep.

The show’s much touted “edge” really establishes itself not with the requisite (male and female) masturbation jokes or with the lengthy scene of suggested nudity complete with strategic pixilation. The moment that made the pilot shine was a short scene in which Chloe deliberately plies a 13 year-old boy with beer to get information out of him. (The show even avoids that moralistic tendency displayed by some shows to wink at the audience and make sure they know that the boy only believes it is real beer.)

With Apartment 23, we may finally have a show to genuinely herald the return of an actually funny female buddy comedy – a ball dramatically dropped by the profoundly disappointing 2 Broke Girls on CBS (which seems to have inexplicably earned a second season). Both shows have the same rough premise (“good girl and a bad girl share an apartment in New York City”), but Apartment 23 has a richer, and darker, sense of fun than 2 Broke Girls on its best day, and also knows that profanity and attitude alone can’t carry a show.

Trying to build on the positive buzz from this past summer’s pilot season, ABC has been streaming the first episode online for its US viewers (on Hulu and ABC.com) in advance of its Wednesday April 11 premiere, when it will take over Happy Endings’ timeslot while it is on regularly scheduled hiatus.

No doubt Apartment 23 will struggle against the implicit constraints of primetime television, but hopefully its edge won’t find itself slowly dulled for network consumption. The darkness of Chloe’s character puts a new sharp spin on the old Odd Couple formula, but if this is the 2010s version of Laverne and Shirley and Kate and Allie, I’m sticking around to see how it plays out.

David Walton and Amanda Peet star in Bent

In terms of its set-up, NBC’s Bent is a more convention kind of sitcom than Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, but it may be all the stronger for it. Confidently combining the tried-and-true formula of a romantic comedy (complete with Matt Letscher in the thankless Ralph Bellamy role) with sitcom television’s embrace of the dysfunctional-friends-as-surrogate-family ensemble format (executed so well recently by New Girl, Happy Endings, and Cougar Town), there is an enormous amount of quiet potential in this show.

Bent stars Amanda Peet as Alex, a recently divorced high-powered lawyer with an 8-year-old daughter Charlie (Joey King). King is a joy to watch: she may be wise beyond her years but, breaking formula, she demonstrates her smarts with emotional intelligence instead of sass. Alex, with her 60 billable hours a week and understandable trust issues, is looking to remodel her new Venice Beach house in the aftermath of her divorce and her high-powered husband’s incarceration. Her newly-hired contractor Pete (David Walton), a womanizing man-boy with his lax crew of labourers and his chill, “I’d rather be surfing” attitude, only barely manages to score the job and comes very close to losing it right away after he beds Alex’s attractive babysitter (Susan Park). It is an additional delight to see Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) back on the small screen. Tambor is perfectly cast as Pete’s father Walt, an amateur conman and still aspiring musician well in his late 60s. And even Letscher gives it his all in the role of Ben, Alex’s waiting-to-exit current boyfriend.

Joey King and Jeffrey Tambor
The central theme of the show is clearly the burgeoning relationship between Pete and Alex. And while David Walton and Amanda Peet do have a fun and flirty on-screen chemistry full of classic banter and screwball give-and-take, there’s more than enough chemistry to go around. Walton and young Joey King have a great thing going too (with Pete emerging as an unlikely father figure for the girl), reminding me once again that the romantic comedy formula doesn’t have to play out only in romantically charged dynamics, harkening positively to the amazing rapport that Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult had in About a Boy. There is, as well, an element of darkness lurking in the background of the show: Alex is clearly obsessed with maintaining control in the aftermath of her life being so upset, and Pete is only recently making a comeback after hitting rock bottom with a gambling addiction. It is doubtful that these elements will ever take centre stage, but they remain there to remind us of the real and flawed people behind the teasing and verbal jousting, giving viewers a real basis to care about how this will all turn out for them.

Bent is familiar without ever feeling cliché, genuinely charming and often charmingly genuine. Borrowing elements from romantic comedies and current sitcoms, it has a romantic core and a hugely likeable ensemble cast. Like Cougar Town’s Gulfhaven Florida, Venice Beach (or at least the Venice Beach that Pete lives in) appears to be populated by a whole host of characters with low ambitions and strong personalities. Perhaps learning all the right lessons from Cougar Town, it seems like the show will commit to the relationship between Alex and Pete by the end of this season, and develop their dynamic without stretching out the “denial of feelings” phase of the formula into the (hopefully) second season. The show will come in its own even more so once it begins telling stories about this productively mismatched pair from the inside of a real relationship.

The first season of Bent was quietly launched by NBC on March 21. Curiously, the network has been airing the show’s six-episode season two episodes at a time on Wednesday nights, making it perhaps the shortest run of any uncancelled network series I can recall: just three broadcast weeks – basically 14 days – from beginning to end. Blink, and you just might have missed it! But don't: Bent is a quirky show with a lot of heart, and well worth seeking out while you still have the chance.

You can catch the last two episodes of Bent this Wednesday, April 4 on NBC. Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 premieres on ABC and CityTV on Wednesday, April 11.