"Allen Gregory" and "Whitney": What Went Wrong and What's Going Wrong

posted Jan 4, 2012, 7:23 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Jan 6, 2012, 12:11 PM ]

I don’t like being wrong.

When the broadcast networks unveiled their fall schedules during the Upfront Presentations in May, I named FOX’s animated Allen Gregory as the best of the new programs based on the previews that were released. Whitney, on the other hand, didn’t even make my list of standouts because it didn’t look all that great to begin with.

Still, I don’t like even being half-wrong. Allen Gregory just ended its seven-episode first season run and isn’t likely to be renewed for a second. Whitney, on the other hand, was renewed for the full season back in OCTOBER – before the former series even premiered.

The premise of Allen Gregory was solid and rife with comedic potential -- an overly precocious seven-year-old is forced to attend public school when one of the fathers decides to go back to work. Like $#*! My Dad Says the previous year, Allen Gregory suffered from poor execution of a strong premise.

I don’t know what happened between the preview in May and the show’s debut at the end of October, but the result was devoid of whatever charm I saw in the preview. The few funny moments -- Allen bringing a picnic lunch and a bottle of Pinot Grigio to the cafeteria, consulting with his smart phone to schedule a lunch with a classmate and referring to his teacher by her first name – had all been all featured in the previews.

Allen Gregory is your typical fish-out-of-water story and the precocious Allen’s transition from the world of private school to the world of public school provided the perfect conflict. However, the humor of a fish-out-of-water story comes from the glaring differences between worlds as well as the attempts to fit in.

Allen Gregory, however, is too deluded in his own greatness to even realize he’s actually the newcomer and in an established situation that he has to adapt to as opposed to the situation adapting to him. With this in mind, Allen just comes across as a pampered, obnoxious little brat. That’s great for a supporting character, but not a main one. So instead of rooting for him and hoping that people will warm up to him so he can make a few friends, you almost want the other characters to take up a collection so that his family can afford to send him back to private school.

The only person who does reach out and befriend Allen is his classmate Patrick, a lonely boy who comes across a bit slow at times. Unfortunately, Allen is so disregarding to him that you have to wonder why Patrick bothers in the first place – even if he is lonely and maybe a bit slow.

Allen’s behavior stems clearly from his father Richard, who not only enables the behavior but is even more deluded and obnoxious than his son. Like Allen with Patrick, Richard disregards and mistreats his significantly more attractive partner Jeremy to the point where it’s hard to figure out why they’re together in the first place or what Jeremy even sees in Richard to put up with such abuse.

This is all meant to be played for laughs, but there’s no evident motivation for how Allen and Richard behave. On top of that, neither of them have very many redeeming qualities, if any at all, which just makes them to very unlikeable characters.

For all there is to dislike about Allen and Richard, there is so much more to like about some of the supporting cast of characters. Richard’s ridiculously attractive partner Jeremy is a nice, sensible, good-natured guy who provides a welcome reprieve from Allen and Richard’s obnoxiousness. Because Allen and Richard can be so unbearable at times, it’s actually fun to watch their acerbic adopted daughter Julie express how much she clearly dislikes them. No matter how bad the situation or how mean the comment is, Julie’s obese friend Val derives such joy from it that it’s sad and funny. And the no-nonsense early sixtysomething Principal Gottlieb is the only adult who seems to be able to exercise some semblance of control over Allen – mainly because he’s madly in love with her (a subplot the show ridiculously explored instead of just making it a running gag).

Interestingly, there are a lot of similarities between Allen Gregory and NBC’s live action Whitney, one of the most critically reviled and viewer-disdained of the new fall entries.

Despite the obvious laugh track, Whitney is actually a somewhat refreshing throwback to NBC in the 1990s when urban, multi-camera comedies about single ladies such as Caroline in the City (yes, I know) and Suddenly Susan (yes, I know) permeated its airwaves.

Unlike Allen Gregory, which squandered a pretty strong premise, Whitney had no such foundation. What’s it about? Is it a relationship comedy about two unmarried people living together? Is it an ensemble comedy about two couples and a likely third by season’s end? Or is it about a brash late twentysomething, her boyfriend and their close-knit circle of friends?

Also unlike Allen Gregory, Whitney didn’t have a clear starting point. Where were Whitney and her boyfriend in their relationship? What is the jumping off point for the series? The only thing that was established in the pilot (and several times since) was that they don’t want to get married – yet. But it wasn’t (and still isn’t) clear as to where the show can or will go from here.

Like Allen Gregory, Whitney also suffers from an unlikeable lead character. The character of Whitney has a strong personality with no softening qualities. She always comes across as if she can get away with being slightly obnoxious (though far less than Allen Gregory) just because she’s Whitney. Once again, this may be fine in a supporting character, but not in a lead. The lone exception may be Roseanne’s Roseanne Conner, a strong, domineering matriarchal character. However, any unlikeability for her was offset by her situation and the love she clearly demonstrated to her family even if her words said otherwise. Plus, that character was funny, written with heart and more fully developed from episode one.

There’s something missing in the development of the Whitney character about who she is and what she wants. Attempts to make her funny fall flat and attempts at heart, such as in the Christmas episode where she was finally able air out some issues with her divorced and secretive parents, seem hallow. It’s as if the Whitney character is trying to be one thing when she’s really something different and makes everything she says or does seem disingenuous. Perhaps there was an earlier, more appealing Whitney characterization that was diluted through the process of network interference, focus grouping and too many hands stirring the pot. Either way, we aren’t seeing the truth of the character and Whitney becomes just another generic sitcom about a woman with a boyfriend.

While the show has a pretty good supporting cast of characters, Whitney’s saving grace is actually Chris D’Elia, who plays Whitney’s boyfriend Alex. His character provides a very strong male counterpart to the Whitney character much in the same way John Goodman did as Roseanne Conner’s husband Dan. Alex and Dan never needed to lord their male status over their respective girlfriend and wife, but they certainly weren’t pushovers.

The problem with Alex though is that he is such a far more likeable character than Whitney that it becomes unclear what he sees in her. When he tells her the he loves her, I have to wonder why. And that’s detrimental for a relationship comedy. Or an ensemble comedy about couples. Or comedy about a woman with a boyfriend.

Though it’s in all likelihood too late for Allen Gregory, Whitney is relocating from NBC’s Thursday lineup to anchor the peacock network’s Wednesday lineup. It has the rest of the season to distinguish itself as more than just another generic sitcom – or at least become something more than one of the most badly reviewed new shows of the current season.