There’s something to be said for “just getting by.” Most of us do it in our everyday lives: Making it through the day, not trying to achieve anything spectacular—just trying to achieve something. It’s a perfectly good way to live without driving yourself crazy about not meeting expectations. “You do what you can—that’s all you can do,” say kindly older men who run homeless shelters on meditative HBO dramedies.
And when a new episode of Whitney begins, that appears to be what it’s trying to do. No big statements. No stylistic experiments. No cutting-edge writing. No heavy serialization. It’s just trying to be a sitcom to the best of its abilities, a television series about somewhat colorful people and the theoretically entertaining situations they get into. Just cool, calming, televised mediocrity.
Which is why it’s so hard to watch when Whitney fails to achieve any of that. Most of its brief existence has been spent failing without flair. Watching a big, fat TV fiasco like American Horror Story is fun because you can tell Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have all these ideas and ambitions they’re trying to synthesize into a single hour of television—so who cares if they typically only manage to convey one or two of those ideas. An episode of American Horror Story has 15 plates spinning in the air and it’s juggling chainsaws with its right hand; an episode of Whitney carries an egg in one of those oversized, decorative spoons from Pier 1 Imports. When the egg spills over the edge of the spoon, it’s painful—but it’s also inevitable.
That may sound like I’m comparing ludicrous apples to mediocre oranges, but here’s the thing: “Two Broke-Up Guys” manages to get its egg past the finish line. A rift between Alex and Mark is easily enough to handle, and the episode takes the easiest approach possible by mapping their fight onto the beats of a romantic break-up. It’s Comedy 101, and the episode passes with the minimum amount of effort required. (This review, however, is going for extra credit in Advanced Mixed Metaphors.) Mark returns a box of Alex’s belongings to Alex and Whitney’s apartment. Alex and Mark are both shocked to see one another at their shared hangout with other people. Whitney comforts Mark with a pint of Ben And Jerry’s. All of these things are ostensibly funny, because they’re not how normal people would react in this situation.
And that’s where subjectivity enters the picture and mucks things up. Because while this scenario is funny on paper, I only chuckled a few times at “Two Broke-Up Guys,” and only once at something directly related to the Alex-Mark scenario. It could be because I’m hung up on the fact that “bromance” humor is so played-out. It could be that I have no real stake in either of the characters involved. It could also be because I saw through the pat treatment the episode gave its material, and therefore blocked any potential investment I could’ve had in Alex and Mark’s break-up and eventual reconciliation.
Whitney Cummings and Chris D’Elia certainly tried to make me care through acting: Cummings not only comes off as a compassionate, caring friend and girlfriend for once, but she also goes through the trouble of pulling a faux-Lucille Ball routine at the bar. (It’s not a reminder of Ball’s finest work, however.) D’Elia acts the hell out of Alex’s parts in this episode, a manic performance that has him filling his newfound downtime with aggressive exercise routines. Later, as Whitney pours a thoroughly pickled Alex into bed, D’Elia finds him auditioning for the remake of Arthur 2: On The Rocks. He’s ignoring the acting-teacher note that legitimately drunk people try to pretend that they’re not drunk, but he really goes for it in the scene—hard enough that the episode temporarily cuts to a shot of Cummings where she appears on the verge of honest laughter. So at least someone found the episode funny.
Of course, “Two Broke-Up Guys” is just a mediocrity following a string of failures, and it’s full of moments that illustrate how much work Whitney needs to do with regard to building characters. The last few weeks have shown that the writers room can shape an episode; now they need to populate all of its corners with three-dimensional (or, hell, I’d settle for two-dimensional) people. I can’t tell what Roxanne wants, other than to drink herself out of divorcée status. Neal and Lily’s charm as the “sane” couple has begun to wear off—though the scripts still respect the comedic team-up of Maulik Pancholy and Zoe Lister Jones enough to throw them the occasional bone. (Tonight’s bone being Lily’s joke about couple’s therapy helping Neal to stop strangling prostitutes.) I don’t know if Whitney can ever be any better than it currently is, and I can’t say whether or not the series has the gumption to try. But if it can attempt to keep a few more balls in the air, maybe reach for the stars every once in a while, and go the extra mile where tired comedy tropes are concerned, maybe, just maybe, it can bomb in style.
- The Blackhawks and the Fire must have been the only Chicago pro sports teams cheap enough to license for use on the show, because their logos are all over this episode. (This is where I’d normally take a cheap shot at the Hawks, but the Red Wings are on a six-game losing streak, so I’m not at liberty to talk smack right now.)
- Pre-credit voiceover: “Nothing can screw up the rest of Whitney.” Apparently the NBC promo department has seen what comes before the end-of-episode tags.
- This week’s “Whitney talking through other people” moment: Courtesy of Roxanne, as always: “People don’t make new friends in their 30s”—a line which I was too busy jotting down to hear the punchline that follows.
- This week’s laugh: Mark gets to the real heart of his and Alex’s disagreement: “And now you have this inside joke about recycling.”
- This week, Whitney ruined: Fletch, quoting Fletch, chicken wings, establishing shots of Chicago (The Bob Newhart Show is so disappointed), and the “actual ‘get out of jail free’ card” joke.