TV Review: NBC's 'Whitney'
It's not that we dislike multi-cam comedies, it's that we dislike bad comedies
If "Whitney" is bad -- and it is, at least in pilot form, bad -- you have to give the new NBC sitcom credit for coming off the blocks as belligerently bad.
Check out this interview with series executive producer Betsy Thomas, in which she blasts the "comedy snobbery" regarding NBC's Thursday comedy lineup, saying, "Somehow it became cool to stop trying to be funny." In the article, Thomas raises the perfectly valid point that as much as I/we/smart-people love NBC's Thursday single-cam comedies, with the exception of "The Office," they're not hits. They'd all basically be considered failures if they were on ABC or CBS. [So maybe audiences don't love single camera comedies. Except audiences love "Modern Family."]
Or catch the opening to "Whitney" itself, in which Whitney Cummings tauntingly declares, "'Whitney' is taped in front of a live studio audience... You heard me." Dontcha be confusing "Whitney" with a single-camera comedy and dontcha be accusing "Whitney" of using a laff-track, y'all.
Yup, "Whitney" is defiant and the pre-premiere party line appears to be simple: Critics who don't like "Whitney" don't like "Whitney" because it's not "cool" to like multi-cam comedies anymore, but that human beings (i.e. non-critics) love multi-cam comedies so, without using exactly these words, we can all suck it.
I don't have an immediate defense to that, since I can't look at the network comedies that I liked this year or last year or any time in the recent past and say, "Ha! There's the multi-cam comedy that I love, so you're wrong," though "The Big Bang Theory" is a regular part of my viewing rotation and "Mike & Molly" also isn't a series I ever go out of my way to mock.
But regarding "Whitney," there's only one truly important rejoinder and it goes a little like this: Disliking "Whitney" isn't reflective of a dislike for multi-cam comedies, it's reflective of a dislike for unfunny comedies and complaining that "Whitney" doesn't mesh with NBC's other Thursday comedies isn't a coded way for criticizing it as multi-cam, but rather a coded way for saying it isn't good.
And if it's snobbery to say, "I prefer good comedies to bad comedies," I guess I'll just have to cop to that. [As if I've somehow ever disputed charges of snobbery in the past.]
More on "Whitney" after the break...
There's a tendency to shy away from the word "sitcom," which has become as much of a bad word or an antiquated word as "multi-cam," but if "Whitney" is going to take pride in being filmed in front of a live studio audience, it should also feel pride in being a sitcom of the most retro type imaginable.
Whitney Cummings plays Whitney Cummings, but not the Whitney Cummings who's a successful stand-up comic, but a slightly different Whitney Cummings who's a photographer. [Why was this the professional choice they made? I don't know.] This Whitney Cummings is in a long-term relationship with Alex (Chris D'Elia), who made a lot of money selling an Internet something of some sort. [Neither main character's professional background actually has anything to do with anything in the pilot.] Whitney and Alex have been together for a long time (five years in the original pilot, but three years now, because somebody must have told somebody this would sound less dire, or maybe just make them seem younger), but they aren't married and they aren't engaged, in part because Whitney's mom (Jane Kaczmarek) has left her terrified by the entire institution.
They've got some wacky sitcom friends, too. Lily (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Neal (Maulik Pancholy) are dating and although the NBC press description has lots of details about each character, in the pilot at least, she's a harpy and he's whipped. There's also bitter, cynical Roxanne (Rhea Seehorn) who's mostly there to lament about dating and the state of contemporary masculinity. And finally there's sexist cop Mark (Dan O'Brien) who says obnoxious and chauvinistic things and waits for the audience to pretend that it's 1984 and them laugh.
A lot of "Whitney" is actually about pretending that it's 1984. Or maybe 1993. And the weird part is that I can't tell if it's intentional. The original pilot had a couple vintage 2009 punchlines about Vajazzling and a character asking not to be CC-ed on something conversational, but they were trimmed. The current "Whitney" pilot is stripped of most pop culture references and even a "Dr. Quinn" reference has to be followed by the question "Medicine woman?" as if the joke needed additional clarification to be funny.
But there's a fine line between being intentionally retro and evergreen and coming across as dated and "Whitney" is mostly in the latter category. Cummings' comedy -- I don't claim to be an expert, but I've seen my share of Roasts, YouTube clips and late-night appearances -- doesn't tend to be reference driven and, I'll confess, I've always felt like she tends a bit too much towards obvious "women are different from men" punchlines, so I can see how this would be a logically network de-raunchified version of what she does. But as predictable as I usually find Cummings' stand-up, I can also respect that her writing is somewhat sharp and her delivery usually hits well.
In "Whitney," however, the writing isn't sharp and the delivery doesn't tend to hit well. For a sitcom with a love for traditional sitcom conventions, "Whitney" doesn't have a very good grasp on ideal sitcom pacing and scene tend to drag in ways that are inexcusable in the high-punchline-per-minute-ratio world of the multi-cam sitcom. The wedding sequence that makes up most of the pilot's first half seems to go on forever and very few of the punchlines either hit or flow organically into the marriage-based-insecurity that fuels the rest of the episode. Too many punchlines are just jokes repeating themselves, rather than the kind of escalated humor this branch of the genre thrives on. If "Whitney" ever decides to let D'Elia be funny, that would help, since too many scenes are Whitney saying ostensibly funny things loudly and then waiting for D'Elia and the audience to laugh and then gracelessly hammering home another ostensible punchline. For now, there's no back and forth and Cummings' is trying way too hard, which is a bad match for D'Elia's low-key, bemused charm.
I'll say this again: Exactly one scene in "Whitney" worked for me, but at least it worked for me well. Worried that their sex life is on the rocks, Whitney decides to role-play as a naughty nurse. This sequence, mostly spoiled already by NBC promos, works because it's the one time in the pilot that suggests or proves that Whitney and the creative team are aware of the way a good multi-cam scene should start from character, escalate, escalate and close strong (though this scene also includes the gratuitously repeated "Dr. Quinn" joke, so it's far from perfect). I'm not saying that "Whitney" should be composed entirely of scenes featuring Cummings in a naughty nurse outfit, just to note that it seems counterproductive and wrong to claim that every scene in "Whitney' is a total dud.
And I could generously agree that Jane Kaczmarek is an improvement over Beverly D'Angelo as Whitney's mom, but in terms of actual resemblance and ability to be intentionally funny on cue.
And, heck, I'll even agree that the revised ending to the new pilot is markedly less bad than the original ending and that several of those cut punchlines were cut for viable reasons, meaning that the producers are not unaware of some things not being funny.
I don't know why I'm inclined to such generosity toward a pilot which is, naughty nurse scene aside, completely without mirth. It could be that I don't think NBC and CBS are necessarily wrong in feeling like Cummings is a star of sorts. I just feel like this is a pilot which, despite Emmy winner Andy Ackerman directing and the punchy Betsy Thomas (also an Emmy winner) producing, exhibits a weird discomfort with the form it's so proud to be trying to reinvigorate. That's why, like I said in my original Take Me To The Pilots post, NBC should have let them scrap the pilot entirely and try again, rather than just tinkering with a few random scenes and pretending that was a solution. It wasn't a solution and this is a bad pilot and that's what my grade reflects, but I can somehow imagine it getting better. By next week, I may have discarded that hope as well.
"Whitney" premieres on Thursday (September 22) night on NBC at 9:30 p.m. ET.