Late last week, I returned to the pilot of 2 Broke Girls. At one time, it was an episode that made me think this show had the potential to be the next great multi-camera sitcom, something TV has needed for a while now. At the same time, I probably would have settled for a B-level show if it captured some of the fun the format is capable of. I didn’t think this was one of the greatest pilots ever made or anything, but I thought it showed enough promise (particularly in its stronger, funnier second half) to make me think there was something worth watching there. Oh, and the casting of Beth Behrs and Kat Dennings was spot-on, even then.
The pilot features most of the problems that would ultimately sink the show. The supporting characters are racial or ethnic stereotypes. There’s an overreliance on jokes that aren’t actually jokes but, instead, sound sort of like jokes would sound. The plotting is haphazard and all over the place (typical for a premise pilot like this). And the “she used to be rich, but now she’s poor” idea behind Caroline’s character was always a little high-concept for a show that had more going for it than that. But there was still that spark of something there. On the one hand, it was a relief to know I hadn’t taken leave of my senses for part of last fall. On the other, it was irritating to watch late-episode scenes like Max kissing that woman accidentally on the subway and wonder where the weird, goofy version of this show had gone, and why it had been taken over by something so loud and abrasive.
And then I didn’t hate the season finale either! It was a return to the version of the show that wouldn’t make me upset if it was as popular as it was. At its worst, this show is incoherent, crude, and racist; at its best, it’s just kind of unfunny. Not only was “And Martha Stewart Have A Ball” largely pleasant, but it also contained a few moments that genuinely made me laugh. Running them down, I liked the notion of going down on a Brussel sprout, the bit where the girls talked about needing a fairy godmother, only to have Sophie enter with a wand and tiara, and the whole business with getting the giant rolling contraption into the bathroom at the ball. I also liked that Martha Stewart was such a game guest star and that the episode played like a weird collection of a bunch of stuff season one had left hanging out there, like Johnny or that weird bacon cupcake the girls came up with over spring break (which has become a recurring character).
More specifically, “Martha Stewart” gave the show something of a sense of fun. It was ridiculous to watch Max and Caroline have a montage where they tried on gorgeous dresses to a pop tune, and the bit where Han rode in on a horse was also very silly. But it was—most importantly—quite a bit of fun, and that’s something the show has been lacking for quite a while. I’d have no problem with a show this silly being a huge hit, and scenes like this reminded me of something like Laverne & Shirley: not a great show, but there was just enough there to recommend that seeing it in the Nielsen top 10s wouldn’t make me hate everybody.
That said, “Martha Stewart” essentially proved that Michael Patrick King is much more comfortable writing single-camera sitcoms. Jaime Weinman had a great post last week about the importance of the scene to sitcoms, and one of the biggest problems with 2 Broke Girls, in retrospect, was that it never gave its scenes room to build. Every time the show would seem to be developing a funny situation, it would cut away from it to do something else. Longer scenes are the lifeblood of multi-camera sitcoms. One of the reasons Big Bang Theory is the biggest comedy on television is because it more or less understands this. Even when it has an episode that doesn’t work at all, it’s doing its damnedest to put the characters in funny situations and then leave them there. This show has always had a problem just leaving well enough alone when it gets into the midst of something that could be funny if given time to build. I don’t know that Max confronting steampunk dude would have gotten any more amusing with more time, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Single-camera can get away with rapid editing because it feels more cinematic; multi-camera has trouble because of its theatrical roots.
“Martha Stewart” feels downright manic at times. It keeps racing along like it’s lost its mind, and there’s a section around the episode’s midpoint that feels like it’s been fueled by some sort of really effective amphetamine. Scenes last 15-30 seconds. Everything flies all over the place, like the studio audience isn’t even there. The problem with this in a multi-camera set-up is that doing it makes everything feel even more stage-bound than it actually is. It’s as if the show keeps losing interest in whatever it’s doing and then keeps getting distracted by shiny new toys. Granted, this isn’t as bad when the toys aren’t obnoxiously awful, but it’s still not really a good way to tell a story that breathes.
There are some other bizarre elements here. If I were reviewing another season of this show, I’d be irritated at the return of Chestnut and the fact that Max still works for Peach, as if King can’t let go of any idea he ever has, no matter how good or bad. The serialization that marked some of the early episodes returns for no real reason and struggles to make everything that happens feel more momentous than it actually is. You can see pretty much every joke coming from so far away that it might as well be descending toward you from the sky, waving happily. The series still hasn’t figured out how to use the ensemble, though at least it doesn’t seem to have something out for all of the male supporting characters.
No, 2 Broke Girls never once lived up to any of the potential that’s still evident in its pilot. Most likely, it just never felt the need to, since it landed as a huge hit and never slumped all that much. But at least in the finale (and a couple of other episodes toward the end), there were glimpses of a show that wasn’t as obnoxiously awful as the series was at its worst. Sometimes, you just have to make your peace with the fact that lots of people like shitty TV and that lots of people are content to make shitty TV, even though they could do more. 2 Broke Girls could have been good. It had all the chances in the world. Instead, it settled for the lowest common denominator. But the finale reminded me that I once at least wanted to like this show, and after all that’s come before, that’s an accomplishment.
Or maybe I am just charitable because this is the last time I will ever have to think about this show this thoroughly. Farewell to all of you. I hope we never have to see each other like this again.