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.
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