Every new TV season seems to have an It Girl, and this one has two obvious candidates: Zooey Deschanel and Whitney Cummings. Deschanel (whose FOX sitcom "New Girl" I'll be reviewing tomorrow) has her face on all those billboards, but I think Cummings wins the title because she has two different shows debuting this week: CBS' "2 Broke Girls," which she co-created, and NBC's "Whitney," which she created and stars in.
NBC has given "Whitney" its best available comedy timeslot, Thursdays at 9:30 after "The Office." CBS is debuting "Broke Girls" tonight after the first "Two and a Half Men" with Ashton Kutcher (starting next week, it'll air Mondays at 8:30 after "How I Met Your Mother"), and executives are boasting that it's the highest-testing pilot (drama or comedy) in CBS history.(*) Both networks seem extremely high on Cummings and her shows.
(*) As always, take audience testing results with a few thousand grains of salt. "Seinfeld" was among the worst-testing NBC sitcoms ever, while "Emeril" and "The Michael Richards Show" both tested through the roof.
But should they be? The pilots for both are extremely broad, frequently bordering on grating, yet there are small pockets in each suggesting that what those network executives and test audiences saw might be able to come out on a more consistent basis down the road. But that's only if each show can learn to get out of its own way.
Though "Broke Girls" was co-created with former "Sex and the City" boss Michael Patrick King, Cummings' stand-up persona - blunt, unapologetic and at times very raunchy - is clear in both shows.
In "Whitney," Cummings is playing a version of herself, here a photographer in a long-term relationship with Alex (Chris D'Elia, whose stoner frat guy was one of the few highlights of TBS' short-lived "Glory Daze") On "Broke Girls," her avatar is Kat Dennings as Max, a tough, earthy waitress at a Brooklyn greasy spoon who develops an odd couple friendship with Caroline (Beth Behrs), the disgraced and destitute offspring of a Bernie Madoff type.(**)
(**) If there's one big trend in this season's freshman class of shows, it's Madoff. "Broke Girls" is one of several shows featuring characters who are related to and/or victims of a Madoff clone. I view it as Hollywood's attempt to play a sympathetic game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
We're introduced to Max as she tells the diner's short-order cook to quit staring at her boobs, then as she tells off a pair of obnoxious hipster customers. ("I wear knit hats when it's cold out. You wear knit hats because of Coldplay," in one of several examples of the kind of grating, forced wordplay that King specialized in on "Sex and the City." Hipsters do not, as a rule, favor Coldplay.)
Whitney, meanwhile, is first glimpsed getting ready for a wedding, complaining all the way as Chris first makes her take off her hoodie, then change out of a white dress because it's inappropriate. ("What," she complains, "does the bride think the groom is going to get confused and marry me by accident?")
Both shows are shot in the traditional multi-camera sitcom format, and "Whitney" is so retro that it even features the whole "taped in front of a live studio audience" disclaimer at the start, with Cummings defiantly adding, "You heard me." That format can produce great comedy, but it's also a merciless beast, endlessly hungry for new jokes, and both series keep throwing them into the beast's maw as quickly and loudly as they can.
So all of Max's co-workers at the diner are the broadest of broad (and, at times, borderline-racist) caricatures: the horny and gross Eastern European cook, the Asian manager who speaks comically bad English (and wants to be called "Bryce" to seem more American), and even Caroline herself, who in the early scenes embodies every lazy joke about pampered socialites being forced to move in a blue-collar world.
The "Whitney" supporting players are less over the top as a whole, thanks mainly to D'Elia, who brings a very shaggy, laid-back quality to the proceedings, has nice chemistry with Cummings and is responsible for the two times I laughed at that pilot. But although there aren't any Carrie Bradshaw-esque puns on this show, nor ethnic stereotypes, the comedy feels more frantic and desperate. The big comic set piece, for instance, involves Whitney trying to head off a non-existent relationship crisis by dressing up in a stripper nurse outfit, telling Alex that he has to fill out paperwork before he can see Dr. Quinn. ("As in 'Medicine Woman'?" he asks, incredulous.)
"Broke Girls" has the advantage of having Kat Dennings at its center. Though her screen persona is dark, she tends to brighten up whatever project she appears in, both in the relaxed way she delivers a joke and the flinty intelligence she brings to each role. And there's a scene at the very end of that pilot where Max and Caroline are making plans for the future, and the writers have dropped all the clueless rich girl jokes and started treating Caroline as an actual person, that's more appealing than the rest of the episode combined. I could understand that version of the show being the highest-testing CBS show ever, and hope that's the direction the series (which will be run by King, with Cummings contributing at night when she gets home from her day job at NBC) travels in future episodes.
Those flashes of potential are much rarer in "Whitney," and mainly revolve around D'Elia. When it's just him being asked to be funny, or when the show stops telling jokes altogether and just lets Whitney and Alex horse around and enjoy each other's company, it feels like there's a show there. But Whitney the writer needs to figure out how to better feature Whitney the actress, and how to make the dialogue come across as less nakedly in service of setting up the next punchline.
As I said last week, a good sitcom is much more likely to have started life with a bad pilot than a good drama, and there are little glimmers in each episode that suggest a much better show could come later. But those glimmers are much more obvious in "2 Broke Girls" than in "Whitney." And if the show Cummings writes for but doesn't star in winds up lasting longer than the one that has her name and face front and center, she may yet have to hand the It Girl crown over to Zooey Deschanel.
Once again, HitFix's grading software won't let me assign multiple grades to the same post, so I'll give the "2 Broke Girls" pilot a C+ and the "Whitney" pilot a C-.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com