• Tue, Nov 22 2011

The Problem With Whitney Isn’t Its Star, It’s The Title

NBC star Whitney Cummings has been a lightning rod for negative attention this TV season. She’s got two shows in prime time, both of which are part of the reason this was supposed to “the season of funny women ruling prime time.” There’s reason to believe that she could have been our next funny feminist icon. The problem is that a lot of women don’t like her. Or her shows.

Just yesterday, Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker called her “this year’s sexy-girl hate magnet.”

I never thought I’d be a Whitney apologist, but I think some of the vitriol aimed at Whitney Cummings’ eponymous show is misplaced tall poppy syndrome.

Not since Cougar Town has a show been more poorly titled. Watching Whitney, I could swear it is a show about a couple trying to figure out how to succeed in a relationship after rejecting the rules that say they need to be married and making babies if they’re serious about each other. But then everywhere I look in the PR materials and show credits, I see Whitney Cummings’ face. I assume this is supposed to make audiences like her. But the opposite happened.

Frankly, Whitney’s brand of female-based relationship humor is not strong enough, or clear enough in its attacks, to stand on its own as a counter to the typical patriarchal sitcom dynamic. Her show hits on some interesting relationship dynamics and shifts in popular culture. It has the makings of a decent ensemble comedy, but that’s not how NBC played this hand.

The reason so many fat-husband-annoyed-by-his-pretty-wife sitcoms exist is because there are sadly a lot of people in America who identify with that dynamic. There are many fewer women who are in a committed relationship but resisting marriage. And more importantly, they’re less likely to self-identify as a trope.

By putting Whitney Cummings out there as the star and embodiment of her show, the network dangled her as a straw man to be torched by sympathizers and foes alike.

Here’s the thing. There are good things happening in Whitney. But a genius take down of the standard family sitcom dynamic it is not.

Like the name Cougar Town, the show Whitney (and its accompanying ad campaign) inspired audiences to reject the show before watching. Actually, the show is much less terrible than its horrible ads would suggest.

But on Whitney, not only is “Whitney” my least favorite character on the show, I resent how the narrative expects me to sympathize with her. As a female, I feel pandered to when presented with an image like this:

Basically, Whitney Cummings is no Roseanne Barr. Roseanne had enough of a new perspective on suburban family life to work as a show. Whitney is a show about a bunch of urban quasi-hipsters’ daily lives.

But there are still things to appreciate. I like the female led cast, and its attempt at a nuanced approach to the modern urban relationship. Yes, there are more than a few problems with the script and the laugh track and the deflated feminism it’s trying to convey with Whitney’s disdain for the institution of marriage. But most importantly, I think the show does its creator and star a disservice by putting her name in lights. It simultaneously conflates Whitney Cummings with her alterego and presents her as this thing for the audience to love. Which made the opposite happen.

A similar thing happened to Zooey Deschanel on The New Girl, but this isn’t specific to female leads. There are multiple male leads that are hatable. I’d be hard pressed to find someone I know who loved Ray Romano in Everybody Loves Raymond. And lets just take it as a given that Ted Mosbey is the least likable character on How I Met Your Mother. That show, by the way, is the most successful Friends replacement that television has been able to create. In its endless series of increasingly lackluster Friends borg ripoffs, network TV finally hit on an interesting ensemble while trying to piece together the meet-cute story of two kids’ parents.

But How I Met Your Mother is really a story of a growing bromance with some suitably dude-friendly females thrown into the mix. Meanwhile, Whitney actually has an interesting female friends and relationship dynamic at play. I like the strangely agressive hot drunkard played by Rhea Seehorn. And if Zoe Lister Jones can figure out how to speak as though she’s on the same show as everyone else in the cast, I think I’d like her as well.

Comparing the cast of Whitney to Kat Dennings in Two Broke Girls is unfair. Dennings is a movie star moonlighting on TV and she has more skill than most when it comes to owning dialogue. Even with a weak script filled with racial stereotypes (and a horse as a backyard pet!), she makes her dialogue sparkle. (If Whitney Cummings is responsible for that horse, then I’m ready to be pissed at her.)

If anything, I think this season of female led comedies has shown that women have just as much trouble writing believable roles for the opposite sex as men do. For instance, the male characters on The New Girl are embarrassing.

Meanwhile, I actually actively enjoy watching Chris D’Elia as Whitney’s boyfriend Alex. He rolls around with puppies, he enjoys dating an actively crazy woman, and he’s one of the most likable beta male I can think of on TV right now. Altogether, I think this group could hit its stride as an ensemble comedy of a group of friends living in whatever city that living room is supposed to be in.

I’m not saying the show doesn’t need some work. But if they could make some good progress by starting with the name.

 

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  • Michael Pitt’s Baby Fat

    I think that NBC’s marketing ineptitude really damaged this show’s potential for success, and totally muddied the conversation about the show. I really wish they hadn’t put all of their eggs in the WHITNEY basket and had pushed UP ALL NIGHT from the outset.

    • Lisa

      Yes!! Up All Night is a great show! I hope that the move to Thursday night is NBC’s way of saying, sorry we should have done it right the first time.

  • CNM

    I saw an episode or two of Whitney and I hated it. Whitney seems to do nothing else than play games with her boyfriend. It’s not funny and it seems like nothing more than the time-wornl “my girlfriend is a nutjob” plot. In contrast, I am pleasantly surprised by Up All Night, which actually does feel fresh and less contrived than Whitney.

  • Nathan

    Respectfully disagree re: male characters on New Girl. I think they’re gelling, great cast chemistry. Interesting take on show title. Anyone have an alternate suggestion?

    • Meghan Keane

      On Twitter, someone suggested Tolerating Whitney. Zooey and the main guy have good chemistry, but they’re clearly going to hook up. The other ones are still just strange to me.

  • lovepup

    If NBC stops making this show totally about Whitney then it may survive. They did whitney no favors by making the show revolved totally around and about her. The cast is fresh and really talented and I love all of those characters. NBC is missing the opportunity to make whitney funny by having her stand next to funny and not always be the funny. Whitney is young and new to this world and it would be a heavy load for anyone in that position to pull it off but it’s hard to give up control.
    Putting Whitney in every scene kills the show and places a huge target on her back for being “the star” and not hiding it very well. Look at the billboards. It’s all about Whitney and that is why people did not like it. No balance for a new talent can kill a show because there is no real solid base for people to accept this new inflated person so instead it is easier to just hate her. That is sad because the show can be really funny in spite of Whitney taking too much airtime. Good luck with that.

    • Lisa

      I could not agree more! Well said!

  • Jamie Peck

    This is all well and good, but did you laugh at all when watching the show? BE HONEST. I could care less what kind of ad campaign it has, the purpose of comedy is to be funny, and I place Whitney’s humor somewhere in between King Of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond in the Great Pantheon Of Things I Refuse To Watch Even For One Second.

    • Meghan Keane

      I actually got caught laughing at the show a few times recently, which is the reason I had to reassess my thoughts. BC there are only so many times I could say: “I did NOT. Shut up, I hate Whitney.”

      Also, I think Chris D’Elia is actually really good. So I mostly laugh at his lines.

    • Jamie Peck

      Which episode? I watched a few before I gave up on it. My roommates and I exchanged many bummed out looks, like, “maybe we should get cable.”

    • Meghan Keane

      The last time I remember laughing out loud, Alex (Chris D’Elia) was rolling around playing with a puppy at the pound. Which might have been the most recent one?

    • lovepup

      That makes zero sense. If you would never give a show like Whitney 1 second then how is it that you even have an opinion? I’ve watched 5 episodes and laughed at all and most importantly each show is really getting much better. I look forward to it each week.
      I’m responding to your comment maybe because I love it when people show a ton of ignorance and inability to write but think it’s perfectly ok to comment on crap they never have watched. It smell like an agenda at play on your part so I’m calling you out on it.

    • lovepup

      Hey Jamie Peck
      Ya..I laughed my ass off at Whitney but who care what you think or I laugh at but don’t go around thinking that you hold the key to what is funny. So there…now you have your answer. People do laugh at The show Whitney. Now go hate some other woman.

    • Jamie Peck

      I made it through three episodes, guys! I was trying to give it a chance! (Did not see the puppy one.) I need something to watch while I switch my brain off and eat dinner after work, so sometimes I just turn on the tube. I find it really hard to understand how anyone could find it funny at all when I find it so cringe inducing, but then again, Everybody Loves Raymond is still on (I think?) while Arrested Development, which made me laugh the most, got canceled (although it’s coming back!), so paint me out of touch with the mainstream.

    • Jenny

      Jamie Peck – I 100% agree with you. Whitney is painful to watch. Even without the laugh track (which is horrendous), the jokes themselves fall flat. When I watch the show I feel like the characters are sitting next to me, elbowing me after every joke saying “Get it? Get it? It’s a penis joke. Penises are funny!!”

      I tried to give it a chance, I just couldn’t stomach it any more. The sad truth is your Arrested Developments (wonderfully written and tongue-in-cheek) will always be beaten by the Two-And-A-Half Mens (slapstick, potty-humor, pandering to the lowest common denominator) in the ratings.

      I still can’t figure out why people thought Monk was an intelligent show and Better of Ted could never get viewers. I (and apparently you) are not the target market for most television.

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  • lovepup

    I did watch Sarah Silverman many times and think she has the exact same problem Whit has. She wa not that funny and a huge disappointment on her own show but the show itself was funny. Loved the surrounding characters on the old Silverman Show and also on Whitney. I think it can be really hard for these comedians to strike the right tone and balance and may get heavy handed with their own time and presence on screen. Too much of anyone can be a turn off. Then again…it took me years to come around and like Seinfeld so maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. Good luck to Whit and Silverman.

  • trancemoment

    hate whitney (the show) – laugh track is awful and i mostly can’t stand watching shows about b*tchy manipulative women (ie the silent treatment) like chris and rhea’s characters, tho. LOVE two broke girls, tho, it makes me laugh – whitney said on stern that she’s hardly involved anymore, so maybe that is good thing? and new girl is cute, too, the guys are really funny.

  • MRN

    I’ve always thought Whitney was quite funny when she appeared on some Comedy Central Roasts. When learning of this show, I was looking forward to it, despite the laugh track (which I generally despise in comedies). As far as this show is concerned, my wife and I think it’s hilarious. She’s funny, the actor playing the boyfriend is very funny, as is the rest of the cast. Whitney and “the boyfriend” have excellent chemistry, and this shows itself clearly in every episode so far.

    We’ve been very pleasantly surprised and consider this one of the best (and only good) comedies on television today. The only other shows we laugh at are “The League” (best comedy on tv) and Parks and Recreation.

    • lovepup

      Same here. I watch the whitney show and was really surprised how good it was. For me Whitney needs to step back a bit but overall the show is funny. I don’t understand the whole laugh track issue. tons of shows have a laugh track and tons do not … either way can keep a person from laughing unless you are some sort of tv critic that is insulted by the laugh track and not really watching the show but prejudging the show. Funny cannot be held down and I think The Whitney Show is one of the funniest on tv this season.

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  • Jeannie

    The placement of this show, with an annoying laugh track after two shows without one, may be part of the problem. It kind of comes as a shock hearing laughter after two very funny shows that do not rely on that sitcom standard.

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  • NotThumper

    I have to disagree with the comments about HIMYM. I don’t believe Ted to be the worst character on the show. He, like a lot of characters, go through periods where sometimes you love them and sometimes they annoy you. I don’t know but to me that makes them seem realistic. Whitney on the other hand, tries way too hard and fails miserably. I don’t find the show funny at all and have never laughed while watching it. I find the laugh track distracting considering it plays after pretty much every line and it is always exactly the same. It’s very strange to hear that much canned laughter, especially as a reaction to something that isn’t even funny. If you seriously think just changing the name would improve a show then I’m not sure you should even be watching television, let alone reviewing it.

    • aperson

      I have to agree with you. I was rather shocked when I read that comment about Ted. That coupled with the subtle-but-snide comments about Two Broke Girl$ and the excessive amount of Whitney love going on in the article… I can’t help but feel that the author is incredibly biased and not somebody that should be reviewing shows.

      I don’t understand how she can basically list all the reasons why Whitney, as a show, is no good, but then argue that it’d be great if the name was changed… I mean, really? There are so many fallacies in her argument it makes me wonder how/why she has the authority to critique anything…

    • Meghan Keane

      Hi guys, As I said, I think that Whitney has a lot of problems, but the biggest ones are the title and marketing of the show. As an ensemble goes, I think a lot could be ironed out (and has improved over the season) because there are some good friend dynamics in there. I just don’t think that the Whitney character is the best part.

      As for How I Met Your Mother, if you really think there is a main character less likable than Ted Mosbey at this point, I don’t know how you’re still watching the show.

    • Kellie

      NotThumper you hit the nail on the head. The show needs to can the canned laughter….better yet can the show altogether…please. Meghan Keane, sorry but you are wrong…the problem isn’t the title or the marketing…it is the show in general. There is nothing funny or redeemable about the show. Two Broke Girls on the other hand is hilarious, very endearing and relatable. Go check out the comments on IMDb sometime on both shows if you want a gauge on the audience.

    • Nancy

      I have never found How I Met Your Mother funny, as soon as I see Whitney’s coming on I race to find anything else to put on (I don’t laugh at either, and I lovvvvveee all things comedy), Two Broke Girls is difficult to watch with all the racism (and the lame horse, though it is beautiful, but how does she afford the upkeep!?), but I can’t stop watching Kat Dennings! I grudgingly like the blonde girl now, too.

      aperson: Why do you have the authority to critique the author’s critique? Rhetorical question; think about it.
      Also, saying 2 Broke Girls is full of racial stereotypes is not ‘subtle,’ and it’s true.

  • anony

    “Actually, the show is much less terrible than its horrible as would suggest.”

    What?

  • Crom

    NBC’s PR department ruined any potential for Whitney by featuring her so prominently in an unrealistic fashion. All of the billboards and marquees present her in an annoying/aggressive fashion. 2 Broke Girls is scattered and one-dimensional. Chris D’Elia and Beth Behrs are great on their respective shows.

    In general, there needs to be some degree of realism to these shows in order for them to succeed. Why are the majority focused on the same contrived and stereotypical dialogue and situations? The writers are completely out of touch with reality; their inexperience shines through, and the performers suffer as a result.

    • tom

      Exactly right. But Meghan’s giving way too much credit to Whitney. It flat out sucks. The worst part of Whitney and 2 Broke Girls is that they rely on really bad joke writing. When they focus on the relationships and some honest moments, they work, sort of. But it’s like a pseudo hipster version of bad Henny Youngman jokes.

      The show that really supports Meghan’s overall thesis is New Girl. That show is overcoming the annoying quality of Zooey D by having everyone on the show acknowledge that she’s annoying and pivoting the thrust of the show to the guys, who are really funny.

  • Marissa

    Whitney can be funny, but the laugh track is so incredibly distracting. Even if I’m about to laugh, I stop myself short simply b/c the annoying track runs at EVERY minor little joke. Distracting.

    And I totally agree Ted Moseby is the least likeable character on HIMYM. Who wants to listen to some whiney character finding flaws in every single woman he dates? Even his friends make fun of him. COME ON PEOPLE. Next you’ll say Ross was the most likeable character on Friends.