Work It debuts tonight on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
There’s a moment early in Work It when the show almost gets at the struggle of a man used to being his family’s bread-winner who’s been thrown out of work and is no longer sure how to define himself. Ultra-masculine former college-football player Lee Standish (a vaguely embarrassed but willing to make this work, dammit, Ben Koldyke) is digging through his wife’s jewelry box, looking for something he can sell to make ends meet. He’s already turned off his teenage daughter’s cell phone service and turned up the temperature in the fridge to save on energy costs. But he’s been out of work so long that he doesn’t see other ways to pay the $900 bill he received at the doctor’s office after a physical. He digs out the diamond earrings he gave his wife as a present when things were flush. He prepares to sell them.
And then he turns around and sees his face framed right above a dress hanging in front of a mirror, and you remember, “Oh, right. This is that comedy about the men who dress up as women to get a job with a pharmaceutical company. Is it 1981?”
There’s nothing wrong with taking a serious situation—struggling to pay the bills when unemployed—and finding a farcical solution to the problem. (This is something that, say, Raising Hope excels at.) There’s also nothing wrong with silly, broad comedy when done well. And there’s nothing wrong with this cast, either, all of whom try their damnedest to make this utterly silly premise play. But sometimes, there’s just a premise so dumb that it keeps getting in the way of anything that could be good about a show and drags it down with it. There’s just no way around the fact that this is a show that sees the world as a vague competition between men and women and also a show that’s about two ultra-masculine guys dressing up as women and using the fakest “I’m a girl!” voices in the history of fake “I’m a girl!” voices (faker even than Bugs Bunny’s) and somehow fooling everybody, including the supposedly smart Rebecca Mader (as office “bitch” Grace). This is a show that wants to take seriously the idea of a man doing anything to keep his family afloat but seems unwilling to actually take that seriously at all. It’s a farce clumsily welded to a family dramedy, and all the stale audience laughter in the world can’t save that.
Let’s just get this out of the way first: Work It is awful. The grade should indicate that. But it’s fascinatingly awful, in that way where you wonder how the hell something like this got on TV in the year 2012. (I’ve actually been wondering that a lot this season, and the upcoming comedies are somehow even less promising than the ones we’ve already gotten.) It’s the early frontrunner for the worst show of 2012, and it’s hard to imagine something else coming along to take its crown. But at the same time, there’s something so vaguely desperate about everybody involved in the production that it’s sort of impossible to hate this as much as it probably should be hated. It’s a bad show, but it really, really wants you to love it, like an animal that’s been run over and dragged itself on your doorstep to look up at you with sad, pleading eyes before dying. (Creators Ted Cohen and Andrew Reich had another pilot with a better script in consideration at ABC last year, and it’s hard not to think that the network picked this one up because there is a devil, and he has it out for Cohen and Reich.)
Surprisingly, the worst thing about Work It isn’t the crossdressing scenes. Those are stupid and make everybody in the show seem like an idiot for not realizing Lee and his friend Angel (Amaury Nolasco, finally answering the question “What if Sucre from Prison Break had tried to sneak out of prison by wearing a dress?”) are actually men, but all involved know they’re silly, so they’re somehow less offensive than they probably should be. It’s the scenes where Lee and Angel bemoan the “mancession” with their friend Brian (John Caparulo, wondering if he can turn “whiny voice” into an entire character) at the guy-friendly bar where they hang out. (The press notes for the show refer to this bar as the “only place they can be themselves,” which, as David Sims notes, makes the show sound like one about two guys who are going through the painful process of coming out to their wives.)
Network TV—but particularly ABC—has gotten weirdly obsessed with the idea that men have to live in the world with women this fall, and Work It just might be the most hostile show of them all in this regard. Brian—though treated as a joke—is still there, spouting off information about how women don’t want men to get jobs, so they can eventually keep a few of us as sex slaves, and it plays along both with the whole odd premise of the show—guys aren’t welcome in the work force anymore, and the world itself isn’t so fond of them either. What this means is that guys who are assholes to their wives and other women in their spheres are no longer welcome, and that’s something that should be mourned. There’s a weird nostalgia for an unchecked patriarchy here, even in the scenes where living as women—among women—gives Lee and Angel more of an idea of how to treat the women in their own lives. It’s just a weird premise, and it’s so filled with resentment that the rest of the show can’t overcome it.
The problem is that the rest of the show is about, well, two men who look nothing like women dressing as women and somehow fooling a bunch of people into thinking that they’re just strange-looking women. And maybe there’s a way to make this work—I don’t think Bosom Buddies is that bad of a show, but it’s also one that boasted Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari, and it’s a show that pretty quickly ditched its premise—but cross-dressing farce just seems like one of those things that makes more sense when confined to a film or a stage play, where we won’t spend week after week watching the other characters seem like numbskulls or where the show won’t make the worst sorts of “men like to be bread-winners, but women know so much about the human heart!” stereotypes. I’d hesitate to say that there’s a way to make Work It work—I suspect there’s not—but the show itself makes just about every wrong choice on the way to its already stupid-ass premise.
At the same time, as stated, Work It is fascinatingly awful. It’s fun to watch these actors slowly realize they’re stuck on a sinking ship (Beth Lacke as Lee’s wife, especially, as she’s now making a weird career of being one of the best things about horrible sitcoms—see also: Happy Hour). It’s also kind of fun to see just how cheap the show is. (One TV critic who’s been at this longer than I have said a night-club set late in the episode—that seems to consist entirely of a backdrop pilfered from a photographer’s stock school picture backdrop pile—was one of the cheapest things he’d ever seen on TV.) And there’s something entertaining about just seeing something this cheap, tawdry, and dumb on network television in 2012. I’m not recommending you watch this show beyond the first half hour, but there’s nothing else on tonight, and if you like staring slack-jawed at car crashes, well, I might have a show for you.