The Case for "Whitney"

posted Apr 25, 2012, 2:57 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Oct 18, 2012, 11:00 PM ]
Whitney was among the worst-reviewed new series of the fall 2011 TV season. From its September premiere to its March 27 finale, ratings were commensurate with that critical and viewer response.

Such a  response was not unwarranted. I wrote in January about what was going wrong with Whitney (in the same article as what went wrong with Jonah Hill’s Allen Gregory). I was pleased with the fact that it was shot in front of a live studio audience, as it hearkened back to the heyday of NBC’s Must See TV in the 1980s and 1990s. However, Whitney suffered from two crucial ailments – a lack of focus and an unappealing leading actress in Whitney Cummings portraying an unappealing leading character in…well…Whitney Cummings.

Someone must have been listening to me because a very interesting thing happened about a month later – the show started to actually get funnier.

Not that there hadn’t been highlights in previous episodes. In Episode 5, titled “The Wire”, Whitney tries to prove how boyfriend Alex (Chris D’Elia, by far the best part of the show) sometimes uses a condescending tone with her by setting up a hidden camera in the apartment with a live feed to a friend’s apartment downstairs. Of course, he’s far too preoccupied with his visiting brother and their longstanding sibling rivalry for her to actually be able to prove anything.

Episode 8, titled “Clarence!”, involved Whitney and Alex adopting a dog from a shelter. Whitney has trouble filling out the forms because there’s nothing on them to reflect her relationship with Alex. Having already been together three years, they weren’t exactly single but they weren’t legally married either. It was the first glimpse of a perspective, a focus and a voice for the series.

However, it wasn’t until Episode 16, titled “48 Hours”, that the series’ first season reached its creative turning point. The episode was the requisite flashback to when Whitney and Alex first met. It was the first time we began to really understand the character of Whitney – and more successfully than the previous effort to do so in the Christmas episode featuring Jane Kaczmarek and Peter Gallagher as her parents.

More importantly, Episode 16 showed us WHY Alex loved Whitney – an understanding that had eluded me since the pilot. The episode also added more depth to each of the supporting characters that had previously been little more than standard sitcom archtypes -- the hardened career woman Roxanne (Rhea Seehorn), Mark the player (Dan O’Brien), Lily the new agey drifter (Zoe Lister Jones) and Neal the successful executive (Maulik Pancholy).

In the following episode, “Mad Woman” (#17), Whitney tries on an accentuating new bra and tests it out on Alex but is less than satisfied by his response. While that made for a funny plot, it was a subplot involving engaged couple Lily and Neal that set the stage for an unexpected and very well-executed storyline over the next few episodes. Neal’s well-to-do parents pressure him into having the forever broke Lily sign a prenuptial agreement. The discussion revealed a major crack in their seemingly rock-solid relationship and the wedding was called off.

The single funniest moment of the series so far occurs at the beginning of Episode 18, “Homeland Security”. When Whitney and Alex are confronted by a mugger, her first reaction is to run off – leaving Alex to contend with the mugger. The move is surprising to both of them as Alex wonders why Whitney would desert him in such a way and Whitney wonders why Alex wouldn’t instinctively run off like she did.

Meanwhile, Lily moves in with Roxanne while Neal moves in with Mark – neither of them realizing that the other moved out the apartment they had shared together.

In “The Ex-Box” (#19), Whitney discovers two things – that Alex has held onto a box of his ex-girlfriend’s belongings and that Alex never actually broke up with said ex-girlfriend. Whitney convinces him to meet up with his ex and officially break things off. However, the ex takes his apology as reconciliation, forcing him to break up with her all over again.

In the tag, the ex shows up at Whitney and Alex’s apartment to size up Whitney. Satisfied that Whitney isn’t exactly an upgrade, she leaves.

Episode 20, “G-Word”, is the episode that made me want to champion a second season for the series. Whitney and Alex hadn’t heard from Neal in a while, so they show up uninvited to his apartment where they find him about to sit down to dinner and on what appears to be a date – with another man.

Whitney immediately picks up on what’s going on but Alex, in humorous fashion, is a bit slow on the uptick but the two eventually leave. The next day, Neal shows up at Whitney and Alex’s apartment to talk about what they saw the night before. He tells them that he’s come to the realization that he’s gay.

Though surprising, this story development felt neither out of left field nor just another plot line. It made perfect sense given Neal’s heritage, Lily’s ability to take a lot of things at face value and how easily their relationship crumbled over what I considered to have an easy fix.

Neal isn’t quite ready to face Lily, so Whitney organizes a coming-out dinner party with her, Alex, Roxanne and Mark. The general acceptance was reminiscent for me of the scene in Ellen’s 1997 coming-out episode where she tells her friends she’s a lesbian. Though that landmark “puppy” episode was far more acclaimed, this was handled just as deftly and sensitively.

Later in the episode, Neal has an opportunity to speak to Lily himself. The affection she still felt for Neal that made them such a believable couple throughout the season was evident in her handling of his coming out to her. Indicative of her new-age nature, Lily’s forgiveness and acceptance of Neal comes with the understanding that sexuality as a whole is often fluid.

This episode is the first time in any TV series or movie that such an understanding was displayed. We live in a world of labels where once gay is always gay, once straight is always straight unless you’re gay and bisexuality is constantly doubted and questioned – something I’m often guilty of. Because dishonesty and repression have muddied the waters of human sexuality, we’re far more comfortable using static labels to better understand that increasingly more complicated concept. And we’ve long since reached the point where such fluidity is mistaken for both.

As the season headed into its final two episodes, Whitney had evolved from a star vehicle in search of a focus into an ensemble piece with a point-of-view deserving of a second season to express it.

In Episode 21, Alex is at a bachelor party when he leaves Whitney a drunken marriage proposal on her voicemail – something he doesn’t remember the next day. Their attempts to piece together the events of the night before lead them to the strip club where the bachelor party was held. There, Whitney meets the stripper with whom Alex spent much of the evening. She recounts what actually happened just as Alex rushes in. It is there that a poorly-executed proposal takes place.

In the season (or series) finale, Whitney and Alex attempt to get married but get thwarted by an expired driver’s license, an uncooperative father who wants permission from Alex to marry his daughter before supplying them with Whitney’s birth certificate, a broken finger and of course, city hall itself.

When they’re given divorce forms instead of marriage forms, Alex takes the hint. The two decide that what works for them is what why already have. They love each other and that’s all they need. Instead of getting married, the two opt for something even more permanent…by getting tattoos.

The tag scene revealed the matching tattoos on their torsos that say “I Do”. It beautifully encapsulated what we’ve come to know about these two characters and made for a very sweet ending to a series that had a rocky start.

That ending also cemented a perspective for the series should there be a second season – the relationship between two consenting adults who are committed, but choose to remain unmarried. It’s Mad About You with a snarky, subversive twist. As touched upon in that aforementioned eighth episode, comedy could be mined from this middle ground between singularity and marriage.

The series’ evolution from star vehicle to ensemble piece allows for even more storyline potential:

- Lily and Neal continue to adjust to their new relationship as they both begin to date other people

- The effect Neal’s coming has on his career and his relationship with his family

      - Mark’s newly-revealed feelings for Roxanne and her reaction to this revelation as it relates to what she knows about
         herself and Mark

- Lily’s feelings for Mark (as seen in the season finale)

- The shift in dynamic between straight guy Alex, straight guy Mark and newly gay guy Neal

Though the series’ creative potential warrants a second season, its ratings do not. Whether as part of NBC’s low-rated Thursday night lineup or anchoring NBC’s low-rated Wednesday night lineup, the series rarely drew more than 2 or 3 million viewers.

Even with that viewership, a second season wouldn’t be unreasonable as NBC is in pretty dire straits these days. Only Sunday Night Football, The Voice, Smash, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, Celebrity Apprentice and Harry’s Law have been consistently drawing even more than 5 million viewers.

If NBC cancels most of its Thursday night lineup as they should but won’t, the network could use Whitney – maybe not for Thursday but its renewal will mean one less half hour to worry about. Community will never be more than a cult hit. Its three seasons should be considered a blessing. 30 Rock should bow out gracefully as this season hasn’t been all that great. And The Office is only going to decline further next season.

Are You There, Chelsea, Best Friend Forever and Bent never had a shot given its midseason launch on a low-rated night. Awake is too high-concept and limited a premise to be sustained for a second season. The Firm was sent to die on Saturdays. Rock Center with Brian Williams should be paired with Who Do You Think You Are? and Dateline on Friday or Sunday nights. Fashion Star is unnecessary and ratings for Escape Routes are low even by Saturday night standards.

That leaves returning series  Parks & Recreation (which itself had a remarkable turn-around after a rough start), Grimm, Parenthood, Up All Night as well as recently announced pickups Hannibal and Go On with Matthew Perry.

That’s a lot of programming holes to fill. It may as well fill one with a deserved second season of Whitney. 

Brought to you by Astro Health. Your in the stars.