Saturday, October 8, 2011

2 Broke Girls 1-02: ...And The Break-Up Scene

As I mentioned in my post on Samurai Girls, bad television exists, and in abundance.  Because of this, they're worth talking about, especially when so many bad shows are so widely viewed.  But bad television that had the potential to be good is especially worth looking at, if only for its tragic value.  2 Broke Girls is one such bad show that feels like a program that could have been decent got lost along the way.  Or maybe it's a purely bad construct with good things trapped inside.  In any case, it's as fascinating and repelling as any case of failed ambition.

Of course, ambition is perhaps not the best word to describe 2 Broke Girls.  At most it wants to be a modest advance on the classical three-camera live-studio-audience sitcom, bringing it up to a new generation while also attracting a group of skeptical youth to the sitcom model.  It's probably worth spending a bit of time on the sitcom as a form, as it's so central to this show's mission.  The live-audience sitcom is at heart a communal form, basing itself on the psychological fact that people are more likely to laugh if other people are laughing.  This isn't just a kind of pressure on the viewer to fall in line with society: at best, it turns the singular model of art (creator beams wisdom and beauty directly into the brain of the reader) into a shared creation, in which audience and performers are both reponsible for creating something meaningful or at least entertaining.  This is the energy that, at best, can elevate a mediocre stand-up comedian or play into something unforgettable.  (There's a similar dynamic at play in professional wrestling.)  The sitcom is very specific about how it constructs its audience, trying to make the content democratic enough to match its form -- this is why three-camera sitcoms are almost always (supposed to) be about average people having funny but plausible lives.  The sitcom represents the masses as much as its audience does, rendering the communication model not me watching somebody else, but us watching ourselves (or at least the version of ourselves that the sitcom hails us as.)[1]

The contemporary "edgy" comedy (for lack of a better term) doesn't aim for quite so broad or communal an experience.  Its imagined viewer is more sophisticated, able to keep up with references, humour, or explicit content that an imagined "mainstream" audience could not.  These are the shows that always seem to be on the verge of cancellation, or that thrive on far-off cable networks.  While its fans may be loath to admit it, at least part of the fun of watching something like Arrested Development is being hip to something cool that others aren't, or being enough of a pop-culture maven to catch every reference on Community.  These shows are single-camera, shot without laugh tracks because they purposefully elide a mass audience.

There are surely ways to marry these two approaches together and reconcile their jarring elements into a greater whole.  However, 2 Broke Girls shows the dangers of such a combination.  Through the laugh track and its broad humour, it positions itself at a mass audience, but tries to impart on them the edgy comedy's sense of audience superiority by scoffing at its own setting.  This is in essence a show set in Brooklyn that lets people in quote-unquote Middle America laugh at those dang hipsters in Brooklyn.  Obviously not every show has to be feel-good about its main characters, but there's a difference between in-group ribbing and out-group attacking, and 2 Broke Girls falls squarely into a latter camp.  This is more noxious than either of the two comedy traditions it draws on: when you're alone in your sense of superiority it's just elitism, but when you invite other people to join in it veers towards bigotry.

The Brooklyn of 2 Broke Girls then becomes a collision of stereotypes past and present.  Our two titular waitresses (the title, with its simple meaning and pornographic connotations, is a rare example of the broad/edgy fusion working) have one fit in the impoverished shithole Brooklyn of old and one in the hipster playground that Brooklyn has become, and it's never able to reconcile these contradictory stereotypes -- so you have a greasy-spoon hole in the wall filling up with refuse from the Arcade Fire concert [2].  Like the formal fusion, there's the potential for interesting things stemming from this collision, but when it deals with it at all it's to have Max, the representative of the hard-nosed working class, tell off some guys in wool hats (allying herself with the broader audience, who likes to identify themselves with the poor and brash no matter their salary) and then go back to her ridiculously spacious apartment in the most desirable neighbourhood in the country to complain about how much it smells.

(Of course, all TV characters live in houses that are way too nice for their alleged class, but you would expect at least some restraint if poverty is supposed to be such a central focus of the show.)

Structurally the episode is mostly plotless, serving as an excuse to revisit all of the characters and settings from the pilot, but not really doing anything with them.  Plotlessness can be great, if the characters have a suitably developed repertoire that the characters, but the banter is both not particularly clever and kind of meanspirited.  A lot of it, like the two girls' jokes about being vampires and avoiding sunshine, are the things that would seem funny when you and your friends are saying them, but are not particularly noteworthy on TV.  Furthermore, most of the characters are the kind of easy stereotypes that only great on further repetition: the elderly black hepcat, the lecherous Eastern European fry-cook, the vapid rich girl and the muscle-bound idiot.  For a comedy that has at least some aims at youthful innovation and edginess, including such well-trodden sitcom stereotypes is a sign that it sits directly in the parents' territory.

What is at stake here is reality versus the reality of television, the world we see around us against the world our screens tell us exists.  In reality we know that people are more nuanced than the easy tropes 2 Broke Girls resorts to and that Brookyln is not in fact an impoverished working class area, but unless we're regularly confronted with this fact -- if we live in Brooklyn or regularly deal with the types of people stereotyped here -- the screen image can become more real than the reality, more frequently encountered.  I've never been to L.A., but I feel as though I know it through countless screen renditions of it.  Similarly, I've never had a sassy waitress, probably because any actual waitress who engaged in rampant insulting of her customers for minor points like Max does in this show would be quickly fired -- and yet the sassy waitress is a type so prevalent and familiar that it seems just as solid as any actual waitress encountered in life.  This is, I believe when the danger comes in.

Most TV shows take place in the big city, but are aimed squarely at Middle America, star youth but are aimed at the middle-aged people who actually sit down and watch TV every night.  So there's a sense of dislocation here, where the stories of youth are filtered through the lens of older writers and audiences, creating a voyeuristic spectatorship.  As Todd VanDerWerff put it, show creator Michael Patrick King "seems fascinated by the idea that there are people who live in this 'Brooklyn' he keeps hearing about."  More insidious than false representations of a city are the kind of racist stereotypes perpetuated by the one-dimensional supporting cast -- the most egregious is the girls' slurring Asian boss, who prompts a seppuku joke that would have seemed maybe a bit too far in the 1940s.  TV viewers in isolated whitopias (whether it be Middle American suburbs or urban intellectual society) may encounter people of colour on TV more than in real life, making their screen images seem more real than the real thing -- and when they're screen images like this, I think it's legitimately dangerous.

2 Broke Girls does have its merits, and they're it's two lead actresses.  It's refreshing to see two women relied upon to carry a comedy, and with better writing this could have been the TV equivalent of Bridesmaids.  Kat Dennings takes her sassy waitress lines and manages to make them seem like they come from an actual person, the kind of brusque defensive girl who would probably actually come from a situation like hers.  Beth Behrs has less to do as an ex-rich blonde schemer, but shows a gift for physical comedy.  I just watched Connie Britton trying her best to redeem American Horror Story, and there's a certain sense of tragedy to the talented actor in the bad show (or movie), in which they always end up trying to elevate it but end up being humiliated.  So in that show Britton ends up getting fucked by a guy in a gimp suit, while here Beth Behrs takes a header into a pile of horseshit.  No, really.  I think a six-year-old must have snuck onto the writing staff here.

I feel like I should apologize for detouring into theory a lot here, but I really didn't want to deal with this episode here, nor was there much to deal with -- there was not so much a plot but a series of uninteresting events and jokes, mostly recycled from the pilot.  In attempting to ressurect the traditional sitcom with a modern sensibility it ends up only capturing the worst qualities of both.  Quality seems pretty irrelevant to a show's longevity, but even if 2 Broke Girls catches on, it'll just be another mediocre sitcom filling up a network lineup -- and those mediocre sitcoms are, in so many ways, crushing us.

Next Week: Anatomy of a (bad) genre drama

[1]I don't have the time/space to get into too much theoretical mumbo-jumbo here, but all of this ties in with Michael Warner's idea of publics and how they're constituted by and can respond to the text.  If you're interested by my garbled version of Warner, I would reccomend picking up his book Publics and Counterpublics.

[2] Part of the issue is that the show never commits to any references that might be obscure but would establish it knows what the hell it's talking about.  All of the hipster references are far too mainstream (Coldplay in the first episode is pretty egregious) and at best two years out of date.  Forgoing something believable for something that everyone will get is an unmissable sign of fakeness, and that's instant death for an edgy comedy.

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