Don’t Trust The B—— In Apartment 23 debuts tonight on ABC at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.
This TV season, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Emily Guendelsberger, who’ll review the show week to week, and Erik Adams talk about Don’t Trust The B—— In Apartment 23.
Emily: In newsrooms, there’s a particular shrug/sigh/eye-roll combo move that happens after some editor takes a straightforward news story about a shooting at a dog park and attaches the headline “Murder in the turd degree.” The reporter had nothing to do with the tone-deafness, but there’s nothing to be done but sigh, wish it was general knowledge that writers rarely come up with their own headlines, and field the angry phone calls.
Nahnatchka Kahn, the creator of Don’t Trust The B—— In Apartment 23 (formerly known as Apartment 23, formerly known as Don’t Trust The Bitch In Apartment 23) must do some version of that wince every time she hears the name of her show. She’d probably have a lot to talk about over beers with the writers of Cougar Town, another ABC show saddled with a built-in conversational asterisk.: “No, I swear—the name is awful, but it’s really pretty good!” (Of course, to be fair, Khan did include the line “Don’t trust the bitch in Apartment 23” in the script of her show’s pilot.)
The coyness of “B——” is an aggravating compromise between three out-of-touch ideas:
- That the word “bitch” still has power to shock in post-9 p.m. TV
- that shock is automatically edgy and hip, and
- that substituting a Ned Flanders-ism is somehow a get-out-of-jail-free card.
This might actually be a good sign for the show—ABC wouldn’t be thinking so hard about whether the title would offend people (much less slotting it after Modern Family) if it didn’t think Apartment 23 had a legit chance of pulling in a wide viewership.
Still, each episode starts off with two moments of awkward dissonance, once in the scribbled-out word in the credits, then again in a door buzzer over the final word of the theme song. (“I’m not perfect, I’m no snitch; I can tell you she’s a bi—!” The theme’s “I’m Lovin’ It” vibe and breathtakingly half-assed lyrics further suggest ABC’s going for the universal spread of a McDonald’s commercial.)
The title would also be less irritating if it didn’t clash with the show itself, which is promising and, so far, seems pretty aware of what it is and what it isn’t. The very first line of the pilot sets it up to knock it down: “It’s just like in Friends!” gushes June (Dreama Walker) about the enormous Manhattan apartment her new mortgage-industry employer has hooked her up with. She’s a perky, naïve blond girl just moved from Indiana, and she rhapsodizes about her life—new high-paying Wall Street job, gorgeous company apartment, sweet scientist fiancé back home—to an aggressively uninterested doorman.
Of course, June’s life is quickly and systematically destroyed, like an adorable, bunny-faced Job. When she shows up to work, the company is being raided by the feds (the surreal chaos involves a U-Boat siren and a man walking by with a flaming manila folder). June’s apartment is seized as a company asset, so she ends up getting a job at a coffee shop and moving into Apartment 23 with Chloe (Krysten Ritter).
Apartment 23 is also gorgeous and huge, but Chloe’s able to afford it not via the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, but by scams like the one she’s running on June: Advertise for a roommate, charm the first-last-security out of them, then be comically horrible until the new roomie abandons the deposit and moves back to “Ohio, or whatever.” Chloe justifies the con as a microcosm of New York itself, which isn’t wholly unsupported—June herself would have been involved in running a much larger scam if Buchwald Mortgage hadn’t gone under. (Interesting that June’s parents cheerfully lay on the “We paid for business school” guilt by mentioning they missed their last three mortgage payments.)
Once the two lead actresses get together, the show gets a boost from how fun it is to just watch their expressions — both have immaculate comic control over their faces, and each has a prominent feature that squares well with her character. Walker’s outsized, cartoon-y mouth seems to involuntarily correlate with whatever June’s thinking, even when she wises up to Chloe’s scam and starts retaliating. (Check out the grin gradients when James Van Der Beek and June are alone together for the first time.) To contrast, every expression Chloe makes seems like a chess move, but Ritter’s huge eyes project whatever emotion (generally scorn, boredom, or irritation in the pilot) is going on underneath, often in very funny counterpoint to what the rest of her is doing. (Given the TV Club readership, I’m going to give this analogy a shot: If The Force involved “smizing,” then Tyra Banks would be on the Jedi Council and Ritter would be Darth Dead Eyes.)
Oh, right! Dawson is in this!
James Van Der Beek is funny as Chloe’s best friend JVDB, a single, exaggerated version of the actor. (Going forward, I’ll be using the full name when referring to the actor and the acronym when referring to the character—it reminds me of JCVD, and anything that does that makes my day a little better.) The show gets several “Hey, remember that one thing he was in?” gags in, mostly involving JVDB’s love-hate relationship with the iconic roles that trap him in the 1990s but continue to get him laid. (The Dawson’s Creek theme pops up twice, first when an impatient hookup switches it on while JVDB is on the phone with Chloe—“You got a fan over, huh? Did she get you to put on the flannel?”—and later when he quickly cuts June’s Paula Cole impression off with a tired-sounding “Yup! That’s the song.”)
Having prepared to review this show by (hopefully) watching exactly enough Dawson’s Creek to pick up on obvious references, it is unclear how long fans would continue to find this hilarious. But the jokes in the pilot, while pretty funny, prompt the question of how many funny Dawson’s Creek jokes exist in the universe. Judging from the next few episodes, though, much of the Dawson-specific humor around JVDB fades to a more general “washed-up Tiger Beat coverboy” bent.
The roommates’ upshift through levels of friendship is a little abrupt (and that’s not even getting into Chloe’s gambit of sleeping with June’s not-so-sweet-after-all fiancé to prove that he’s a serial cheater because she’s such a good friend), but comedy pilots tend to be half jokes from a cast that hasn’t had a chance to gel and half utilitarian origin story—not a great recipe for plausibility or hitting-all-the-high-notes humor. The two bond when hunting down Chloe’s grandma’s ottoman, which June sold (along with all Chloe’s other furniture) as revenge for being conned. June even makes an earnest speech in defense of her roommate’s hidden humanity to persuade someone to sell it back; Chloe sees the fact that June fought back at all as a pass on the New York viability test. And that’s it! Friends! If only that title wasn’t already taken…
- Despite everyone involved with the show’s claiming they only ever had eyes for James Van Der Beek, (“I had to audition against six other James Van Der Beeks for this role,” he told Hitfix), the original show pitch envisioned Lance Bass as the peaked-in-the-’90s friend. Consider the space-themed subplots that might have been!
- June’s pleased about another sitcom-like element of her new home—Eli, the friendly neighbor who always seems to be available for a chat through the kitchen window—until she realizes mid-conversation that he’s also masturbating. Trigger unfortunate, revisionist flashbacks to Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World.
- Didn’t mention Robin, the Chloe-obsessed neighbor who says the show’s title. This is because that character is boring and not funny, even though she’s played by Liza Lapira, Topher’s cute assistant from Dollhouse. Hopefully she’ll get something to do besides “one-note stalker.”
- JVDB mentions he and Chloe dated back when she first moved to New York—wonder where she came from, and if she was as clueless as June? (Probably not, given that they met when she sold him a condo she didn’t own.)
- Chloe carries around unwrapped Peeps in her Alexander McQueen bag? That’s a dangerous game.
- Chloe and JVDB walk past the Tribeca Tavern at one point—is that where Apartment 23 is supposed to be located? If so, June’s living in a huge Manhattan apartment on a barista’s salary: kind of the Friends dream, after all.
- If nothing else, this show has (probably) the only Hume Cronyn-related masturbation joke ever to appear in primetime.
- (Spoiler alert) Grandma’s ottoman, by the way, was important less for the sentimental value than the stash of pills hidden inside. (“Chinese energy tablets! They make you extremely focused and super slutty!”) When this becomes clear, Chloe dismisses June’s protests by saying the heartwarming cover story wasn’t a total lie: “You can love Grandma’s ottoman and still want to make money on pills.” The show treats this statement as a punch line. ABC, with its desire to censor its “bitch” and have it, too, doesn’t appear to be in on the joke.
Erik: Emily, it’s funny your mind leapt to Cougar Town, because Don’t Trust B—— In Apartment 23 reminds me of a show with the opposite of Cougar Town’s inability to find an audience: 2 Broke Girls. Specifically in the way that tuning out everything but Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs is the only method for enjoying CBS’ newest breakout sitcom. In Krysten Ritter and Dreama Walker, Apartment 23 gives the viewer a pair of fantastic comedic leads as well-matched, if not more, than Dennings and Behrs. And Ritter’s Chloe gets to spit venomous bon mots Michael Patrick King only wishes he could give to Dennings’ Max.
But the three episodes of Apartment 23 screened for critics (the first two of which are available for streaming from ABC’s website) are capable at wringing comedy and feeling from the elements surrounding its core relationship as well. JVDB is a fun gag, but there’s a humanity beneath all the digs at his post-Dawson’s Creek career. He’s had his ups and downs just like anyone else, it’s just that those ups and downs sometimes involve arm wrestling with Kevin Sorbo. Even Eli, the perv across the alley, looks like he could prove to be more than the sum of his surface tics. These aren’t the flimsy stereotypes that run the 2 Broke Girls diner; they’re funny attributes hung on real people.
I’m eager to follow Apartment 23 because it brings a unique, surreal tone to ABC’s sitcom stable that I haven’t felt from any of the network’s offerings since Better Off Ted. But more than that, the series shows an investment in characters and relationships—even if it discards Chloe’s initial con and puts her and June on the track to friendship by the end of the pilot. I’ve felt that way since first watching the pilot back in September 2011; that ABC sat on the series for most of the television season eventually gave me pause, but it would appear network brass was waiting on one growing, absurdist-tinged sitcom it’s shown faith in—Happy Endings—to finish its season before handing the plush, post-Modern Family timeslot to Apartment 23. Here’s hoping they show the same type of patience to Apartment 23—though it’s so purely funny right out of the gate, it’s more a matter of finding an audience than the show finding itself.