Comedies often take longer to find themselves than dramas. You can look at “Parks and Recreation,” “New Girl,” or ABC’s “Happy Endings,” which begins its third season tonight at 9, as just three recent examples of sitcoms that didn’t fully understand their strengths and weaknesses until late in their first seasons or early in their second, and are now three of the funniest shows around.
So even though I wasn’t wild about the first season of ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23,” which returns tonight at 9:30 after “Happy Endings,” there was enough interesting raw material there that I had hope for a similar leap forward in season 2. Instead, it’s the same uneven show, full of ideas that seem funny in concept but only occasionally get there in execution.
The main issue, I think, is the eponymous B---- in Apt. 23 herself, Chloe, played by Krysten Ritter
. The show’s creator, Nahnatchka Khan, used to write for “American Dad,” and there’s a sense of cartoon logic to Chloe and the way she operates that’s very difficult to pull off with a flesh-and-blood character. You can do a show about an unlikable con artist who goes through life preying on the weakness of others — as her odd couple roommate June (Dreama Walker) puts it in one episode, “Chloe doesn't go out on dates. She bangs strangers at the People's Choice Awards and then steals their People's Choice Awards.” — but the degree of difficulty becomes much higher. Chloe’s antics have to be so incredibly funny — we’re talking “Arrested Development”-level or "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"-level funny — that it doesn’t matter how reprehensible she is, and most of them only rise to the level of clever.
The first two episodes of the new season(*) hint at a softer side for Chloe, but it’s always part of some scam. In the premiere, she tries to protect her best friend James Van Der Beek (played, of course, by James Van Der Beek) from having to face how much more successful his “Dawson’s Creek” co-stars are than him, but it’s in service of a selfish agenda. Next week, she stuns June by appearing to be in a genuine relationship, but it turns out to be part of her annual Halloween tradition of ruining the life of a stranger who earned her dislike the year before.
(*) ABC aired only seven episodes last spring, leaving a handful left over to air at some point during season 2. But the first two out of the gate are ones specifically produced as part of the second season, meaning this is where Khan and company are with the show right now.
There are some good ideas here, but they only occasionally click. Van Der Beek remains game to spoof his own image, yet he’s upstaged in two different scenes tonight pairing him with famous guest stars doing the same thing, both of them making me wish that this actor or actress was pretending to be best friends with the Bumper Car in Apt. 23.
Figuring yourself out doesn’t automatically make you perfect. “Happy Endings,” for instance, learned how to better use all of its actors, but it occasionally still turns out a clunker like tonight’s premiere (which also involves characters being incredibly selfish and hurtful without good enough jokes to compensate for the behavior), but hits far more often than it misses (next week’s episode is quite good, and not just because it includes the gang dressing up as the Jackson 5 as marionettes).
But both these ABC shows are moving into an hour that already features comedies on NBC (where “Go On” has turned into a modest hit) and FOX (where “The Mindy Project” will be pre-empted tonight by a special “X-Factor” episode that starts opposite the “Don’t Trust the Barnacle” premiere). With so many laughter options in the hour, “Don’t Trust the Bath Salts” can’t afford to fumble around with its promising component parts much longer.