Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Why Whitney is the Best New Network Sitcom of 2011-2012

Unpopular Opinions is a new weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it's asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.

In September, when Whitney was being promoted on every public, large, flat surface from Augusta to Tucson, it was a punchline. Its ad campaign was so viscerally terrible that before the show even debuted it evoked over thirty negative comments on a post we did on it. Then the pilot aired and it didn’t do much to disprove everyone’s hunch. Whitney was wildly and mostly accurately considered to be unfunny, offensive to women, and stylistically dated.* There was no reason to continue watching, unless you were a masochist and/or television critic and/or contrarian. I can be described as at least two of those three (I’ll let you guess which) so I’ve tuned in every week. As it nears the twenty-episode mark, I can confidently say it got better, much better. To a point that if it gets renewed, which is a big if, one might be able to call it the best new network sitcom of the 2011-2012 season.

In that aforementioned post, Halle Kiefer made the point that, “the ad campaign seems to be very focused on how awful women are, what with that noise that is ceaselessly emitting from their throats.” This was true about the billboards and continued for the first few episodes of the series. By winter, though, it was apparent that the intention was not to say that women in general were awful, just that one woman, Whitney, is. Whitney (the character, not necessarily the person, but probably) is abrasive, overzealous, somewhat daft, and not particularly cool. It’s easy to look at a picture and project confidence upon her, but on the show she mostly ends up playing the fool.

A comment on that same post argued Whitney was, “another hot woman who thinks she can get away with terrible jokes because she’s hot.” The ads definitely justified this assertion; however, after spending more time with her, it’s apparent Whitney doesn’t agree she’s hot. Instead, her character has maintained a genuine, almost Liz Lemonian, awkwardness towards being sexy. In her standup special, Money Shot, she joked, “I’m not a sexy girlfriend — all I do in relationships is fight.” There is a real insecurity there, one that has slowly been able to permeate the show. She dressed as a “sexy nurse” not to attract dude viewers but to get laughs out of her own discomfort. In contrast, The New Girl, the current frontrunner for best new sitcom, has taken a similarly uncomfortable, untraditional, very specific character, Jess, and smoothed out all her edges completely to make her as widely digestible as possible. Whitney, though, has grown to be a deeply flawed character and what the show does best is stay true to that flaw.

If anything, the biggest problem with the ad campaign was it portrayed Whitney and Alex (Chris D’elia) as just another cool, good-looking TV couple, which months later couldn’t be further from the truth. The show is primarily about how these two dumb goofballs are in love yet completely stupid when it comes to their relationship. They spend episodes doing what they think the other would want only to fall flat on their faces. Last week’s episode, “Mad Women,” focused on both trying to act like people they thought the other would like, and drew comedy out of how stupid they looked. Recently, it seems the writers have really figured out how to tap into the natural rapport that D’elia and Whitney share — to a point where I have found myself questioning if they date in real life (they don’t). Here is a scene from a recent very good episode that told the story of how the two leads met:

It’s not revolutionary television but it’s very funny. The show is about relationships, which is nowhere near an unheard of premise but that doesn’t make it completely worthless. Throughout her career, Whitney’s perspective on relationships, though it may not be everyone’s cup of chamomile, has reverberated with many and the show is starting to get how to best convey it.

The biggest questions remains, is Whitney the funniest of the new network sitcoms? The New Girl, admittedly has more consistent writing but that has more to do with a shared set of understood references than strong characters (other than the delightful Schmidt); 2 Broke Girls is inconsistent depending on the episode and level of racism; and Up All Night and Suburgatory, though both expertly performed, have yet to find any semblance of a comedic infrastructure. Whitney, though not exceptionally well written, has a cast that has grown quite comfortable in the show’s skin, especially now that they’ve been given more leeway to improvise. It’s undoubtedly silly, but I can honestly say that few things made me laugh harder than this scene from episode nine:

I’m aware this isn’t exactly Arrested Development-level scripting but it’s an absurd, unabashedly fun few minutes. The show has scenes like this once or twice an episode that are almost always really enjoyable. Take this somewhat post-modern (are you with me Community fans!?) scene starring two of the supporting characters, which succeeds because of really solid performances:

Look Whitney is not yet a great show — it’s not yet a consistently good show — but it definitely has something. It’s easy to dismiss sitcoms, especially when you go into it planning on disliking them, but sometimes, if you give them time to figure out how to best convey their universe, they can change opinions. Happy Endings famously had some really hard to watch episodes to start its series, as did Parks & Recreation before it, and now together they stand as the most consistently hilarious shows on TV. Is Whitney the next Happing Endings or Parks & Rec, probably not but it could be the next Mad About You, which isn’t too bad. Then, hopefully in a year or two we can revisit those awful ads and laugh, just like we’ll do when we watch Whitney.

* I’m not going to discuss the value of laugh track in the post because I think it misses the point. A bad show is bad and a good show is good, regardless. Seinfeld and Cheers had a laugh track — Perfect Couples and Outsourced did not. If anything laugh track is particularly successful working with the joke cadence of former stand-up comedians, which is the case with Whitney’s two leads.

If you have your own Unpopular Opinion you want to make a case for, send a pitch to Jesse David Fox.

Jesse David Fox is a freelance writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn. He recently "built" himself a very unimpressive website.

Sponsored Content
  • http://www.collegehumor.com/user:328495 Chase Mitchell

    I've hated 2 Broke Girls and Whitney from the start but have continued watching them both out of a combination of masochistic curiosity and a genuine desire to give them both a sustained, one-season fair shake. I agree that Whitney has improved but still wouldn't rank it anywhere near Up All Night, uneven as the latter may be. Not sure how you forgive Whitney its inconsistency but penalize Up All Night for the same thing. The writing and performances on the latter (especially from Maya Rudolph, who continues to be the strongest character) are still head and shoulders above Whitney.

  • B Westof@twitter

    The New Girl is one of the best shows on TV right now, not just the best new show.

  • http://www.seanandmeghan.net sean oconnor

    Perfect Couples was actually pretty good. I also don't hate Whitney.

    • Anthony Coro

      @sean oconnor Thank you! Perfect Couples is one of the most misunderstood sitcoms in recent history. Everyone just seemed to latch onto this argument that Olivia Munn was cast purely for sex appeal (which is like saying Elisha Cuthbert was cast in Happy Endings purely for sex appeal–just because they're attractive and not quite as comically brilliant as the rest of the cast doesn't mean they didn't fit their roles) and wrote off the entire show. It was filled with cliches, sure, but there were a lot of pretty clever moments. I love the episode with the jogger.

    • laura jayne martin@twitter

      @sean oconnor Yes! Just here to jump on the Perfect Couples bandwagon. Almost every episode of that little season made me laugh. Glad to see it's not as overlooked as I thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Mischnick/699648889 Michael Mischnick

    It would be a real shame if NBC uses articles like this to justify picking up Whitney for a second season, particularly since NBC has indicated that Community might not come back next season if Whitney is picked up. If that happens, Jessie, you will PERSONALLY be responsible.

  • ratchet


  • Par Mahn@facebook

    I've been watching 2 Broke Girls and enjoying it for similar reasons listed above. It's not groundbreaking, pretty cleshay but its just generally an enjoyable show. I may have to check Whitney out and see what the deal is.

  • pv

    I've also been watching Whitney and I can agree that it's gotten better but that's still not saying much. The main problems I've had with the show are still there: it's hard to believe that any of these people on the show actually enjoy each others company and they're not even trying to put a new spin on old storylines (they go to couples therapy! they argue over passwords! etc.). Up All Night and Suburgatory still have their own problems, but they've both definitely been consistently funnier/better written than Whitney.

  • juca5056

    Unfortunately, if those clips were the best you could muster to make your case (for an INCREDIBLY subjective topic), I don't see you winning too many Splitsider readers over to your side.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jaime-Weinman/656722902 Jaime Weinman

    I agree that Whitney has gotten better, and Chris D'Elia's Alex has been one of the best performances on TV this year (his drunk scene was just a great bit of classical sitcom performance). Among NBC's new shows I'd put it above "Up All Night" too, and it doesn't deserve the hate it got for its format, but I think ABC's "Suburgatory" and even "Last Man Standing" have fewer obvious weaknesses.

  • EXP +1

    Chris D'Elia definitely does make this show watchable.
    I continued to follow this show from the beginning and it's kind of grown on me, something that I like watching with my wife because of its relationship humor.
    Her favorite new show is actually New Girl, probably due to Schmidt and Nick.
    Suburgatory definitely grew on me as one of the better new shows, I love anything with Dalia.
    Up All Night I figured was going to be the best due to the cast, it's not a bad show but it's never a really funny show.
    Two Broke Girls I'm not going to lie, I'm watching that for Kat Dennings.
    I'm just glad they took Whitney off the Thursday night block, Up All Night is a much better fit.

  • Emerson Dameron@twitter

    D'Elia and Cummings are both great stand-ups. It didn't have to be this way.

  • itsonreserve

    I think the problem I, and many other female viewers, who are ourselves imperfect disastrous nightmares have with Whitney is that NBC already has a few shows with female characters who are as disastrous as us, but they are better written and acted by light years. If the schedule is coming down to Whitney Cummings inability to read lines versus Britta Perry, I'm sticking with Britta Perry, you know? Or Liz Lemon. Or Leslie Knope. Or heck, even Regan. Other than, "Relationships are hard sometimes," I feel like Whitney doesn't have anything else to say or do. I must admit I haven't watched a million episodes, but I did give it a fair shot and I don't think I saw "photographer" Whitney actually take a photo or touch a camera outside of her apartment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Erich-Kuersten/17400756 Erich Kuersten

    Man, I'm glad someone likes this show, and the actresses are all cute and the writing witty enough, but good lord, it's like a bunch of kids playing grown up, they have no clue what real life in NYC is like… it's brain dead, and the laugh track is insulting.

  • Robert Dixon@facebook

    I've given whitney a couple of chances and it is ok. I don't make it a point to record it. But I might if my weekly tv is light and I didn't see the episode.
    So far I love 2 broke girls. Sure it's nothing more then sex jokes and kat's huge tits that I just want to motor boat until the end of time. Suburgatory is great I think. It's not a consistent laugh out loud funny, but I enjoy it.
    I do like Last Man Standing though. Sure it's Home Improvement with girls and minus Wilson (RIP), but it is rather funny, but family safe.

  • Slutface

    Zoe Lister-Jones is on this show and that should be enough for anyone to watch.