This is far from a fresh observation, but reviewing a television series episode by episode is a strange prospect. Technically, pieces of this nature contain two reviews—one on the episode in question, and one on the series as a whole. It is, in that light, like simultaneously reviewing a finished work and a work in progress.
By that measure, “A Decent Proposal” is an improvement over the episodes of Whitney that came before it. For example, it tells a fairly coherent story: Whitney claims that romance is bullshit, and Alex takes up the challenge of changing her mind. Meanwhile, there is noticeable and traceable comedic heightening not only in the A-plot, but also in the B- and C- (and D-?) plots, where Neil and Lily go through pre-proposal jitters and Mark and Roxanne get into new, separate single-people capers. Every member of the cast (even Whitney Cummings) appears more comfortable in the ensemble and in front of that studio audience that Cummings is so goddamn smug about. By all those measures, “A Decent Proposal” is the first episode of Whitney to break out of the “D” basement and earn itself a slightly more respectable C-.
Of course, none of that helps Whitney as a whole to be more than a “D” series. It’s remains a TV show that, for the last three weeks, has run its two leads through a never-ending, always-shifting relationship competition. And the impetus for the events within that competition continue to feel ripped straight from the Must See TV also-rans of yore: Last week, it was Alex’s mistake of telling Whitney to “shush;” this week, Alex and Mark are appalled when they learn Lily plans to propose to Neal—and not the other way around. We are, unfortunately, robbed of Jonathan Silverman’s take on the situation.
We get an earful on the subject from Whitney, though, and she manages to drop a pair of “Can we just agree… ” queries before the first commercial break. Among the things Whitney can’t stand this week, in addition to the concept of romance: romantic-comedy contrivances, raw vegan food, a dinner at a fancy Chicago restaurant (What, you didn’t already know the show took place in Chicago? Didn’t you notice Mark’s Blackhawks shirt?), and every extravagant aspect of Neal’s proposal. There’s a lot of great comedy that comes from very negative places, but the negativity and “I’m dead inside” schtick of Whitney borders on cynicism-for-cynicism’s sake. Thank God Alex has apparently softened Whitney’s rougher edges—or so he claims after the proposal—or this series might just be a black hole of joyless snarking at anything that moves.
But if the series ever wants to be the type that can effectively pull off a tender moment like tonight’s conclusion, it has a lot more softening to do. I feel a twinge of pity each time Whitney pushes Maulik Pancholy and Zoe Lister-Jones into the spotlight, and never has that twinge resonated like it did as Pancholy and Lister-Jones worked their way through the wild tonal shift required for Neal’s proposal. Both actors are best taken in small doses (the way Pancholy’s Jonathan has always been served up in 30 Rock), but whenever they’re onscreen, it’s hard not to want something better for them. Maybe roles where they’re not broadly drawn lovebirds whose only purpose is to illustrate how couples who act like they legitimately enjoy one another’s company ruin monogamy for everyone around them.
It’s not that Whitney should up and abandon its “bickering couple” material; after all, the very foundation of the sitcom is built on bickering couples. But even Ralph Kramden tempered “Pow! Right in the kisser!” with “Baby, you’re the greatest”—and those turnabouts felt earned. Witnessing a marriage proposal is powerful stuff, but I don’t buy that Whitney could go from riding a bicycle built for spite to openly crying in so little time. The leap from instantly resolving its main conflicts to providing a solution that organically arises alongside the ratcheting tension is one that Whitney has yet to make. (“First Date” came close to achieving this but showed its hand far too early.) But one of the neat things about watching a work in progress is that you get to see the discoveries the people crafting it make along the way. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in Whitney eventually figuring itself out, but if hoping it makes these tiny revelations is what makes watching the show more pleasurable, so be it.
- Whitney and Alex arriving to the rose garden on a tandem bicycle was funny—until the dialogue called attention to the prop and totally wrecked the gag.
- Another instance where holding back helps: Whitney keeping herself from blurting out “blow job” at her lunch with Lily and Roxanne is funnier than any time the character has actually said something dirty.
- Dispatch from Must See TV, circa 1995: Whitney virulently objects to raw vegan cuisine, later tells Alex she ate a “burger made of dirt.”