Working Class debuts tonight on CMT at 8 p.m. Eastern.
There were a lot of reasons people got tired of traditional sitcoms (ones filmed with multiple cameras, with either the laughter of a studio audience or a laugh track backing things up), but I think one of the most unheralded reasons for their demise is that the people in them were just the worst, and the show wanted us to think this was quirky or endearing somehow. There’s nothing wrong with having an absolute asshole at the center of a comedy—see cult classic Buffalo Bill—or even someone who’s an inadvertent asshole—see everybody’s favorite Arrested Development, where Michael could be reflexively unfeeling without even seeming to try—but too many sitcoms turned into joke machines where the lead was doing incredibly terrible things to people and didn’t seem to notice. Then they’d mug endlessly, quirking their eyebrows in every which direction and laughing goofily, as though we were supposed to find their awfulness charming.
This probably all started because of Everybody Loves Raymond, but that show usually had a good sense of when it’s characters were behaving like assholes and the best way to get dark comedy out of those moments. (When it lost that sense is when it started to go downhill.) Compare that to many of the fat-man-with-hot-wife sitcoms that CBS put on around that time—like Still Standing, for instance—and you just get a lot of shows about petty, selfish people obsessed with tiny, tiny things that couldn’t possibly matter to anyone. And yet there they are, blowing these conflicts way out of proportion and being dicks. The worst offenders were probably According To Jim and Til Death, two shows that didn’t know how to write husband-wife scenes without having them seem like bitter, outright war. (At least that was true until one of them wandered off into surrealism.)
So tonight we get Working Class, a show that tips its hat to a lot of the best traditions in sitcom history, traditions that are no longer around so much, but a show that is pretty much about people who are just the worst. In all three episodes, lead Carli Mitchell (Melissa Peterman, best known for gradually becoming the most important supporting character on Reba through sheer force of comedic will) leads on a man (or two!) to get something she wants. The episode where she does this the least is also the one where she ends up fighting with her ex-husband’s new girlfriend in a ball pit (and while this is the climax of the episode, if you’ve ever seen a sitcom, this will not be a spoiler for you), so it’s not like she’s a paragon of virtue there either. Hell, in the second episode, she all but whores herself out for dental work, until her conscience gets the better of her.
Obviously, if the show’s writers and fans were to defend the show, they’d likely say, “But it’s supposed to be funny!” but I watched three half-hours of this thing and laughed once, at a pretty good delivery of a flat line by a guest star who was in the episode for less than five minutes. The only way any of this can work is if the show is so funny that you don’t realize how terrible the people in it are (again, Arrested Development) or if the show is able to make a sick joke out of the depths these people will sink to to get what they want (see It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia). Working Class is stuck in the trappings of an ABC family sitcom circa 1995 (think Grace Under Fire or Roseanne), and that makes the characters being terrible and the show treating it as just another thing that happens all the more jarring.
There’s also a serious problem with the premise. Carli’s a single mom with three kids, working at a Whole Foods-esque grocery store while her brother takes care of the kids at home. Her best pal at work is a gruff, grumbly old man played by Ed Asner (of course), and her boss—with whom she has instant romantic comedy style sparks—is played by Patrick Fabian. Tonight’s pilot, at least, seems to set the show up as one that will split time between home, where Carli tries hard to make less and less money stretch further and further, and work, where Carli will do the elaborate dance of seduction with a very rich man while trying not to lose her core self or something. So far, so good. It’s not exactly original, but we also don’t have a lot of blue-collar sitcoms with strong female leads on the air right now, so it’s a genre worth revisiting.
But in the next two episodes, the show drops the grocery store entirely! Asner and Fabian (who were both fun in the pilot, if not exactly funny) don’t appear again, though Asner continues appearing in the opening credits sequence, and the show downshifts into a show about a single mom who tries to make money stretch further and further mostly by playing up her assets for men. Again, this might be fine if the show had any concept of how awful this was, but its main attitude toward this idea is, “Well, whaddaya gonna do?!” Even Peterman’s old Reba co-star, Reba McEntire, who drops by for the third episode and can be a pretty appealing sitcom actress, can’t help things along, mostly there to mug and say things that sound vaguely like someone from the “country” would say.
If there’s something worth taking away from all of this, it’s Peterman, who’s often trying too hard to cover up for the holes in the scripts but at least seems to be having fun doing it. Peterman’s always been a go-for-broke kind of actress, and the idea of building a show like this around her is a good one. It’s been too long since we’ve had a sitcom with this kind of earthy, unassuming actress in the lead, and it’s been too long since we’ve had a sitcom that gets serious about the kinds of money problems most people in America have. There are brief glimpses of this kind of show in the three episodes CMT sent out, glimpses that suggest that Peterman might drag this thing back on track by forcing the writers to write more to the realistic sides of her character, but they’re so brief that they don’t leave much hope. Sadly, Working Class is just going to give more fuel to the fire of those who believe the traditional sitcom format should stay dead and buried.