"Work It" Didn't Work Out

posted Jan 17, 2012, 1:29 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Jan 17, 2012, 1:29 PM ]

I knew I was going to be right about one thing this TV season.

In my rundown of May’s network upfront presentations, I singled out Work It as the ABSOLUTELY WORST-LOOKING SERIES for good reason. Its premise about two men who, unable to find work, dress up as women to secure pharmaceutical jobs was not only derivative of and inferior to the similarly-themed early 1980s comedy Bosom Buddies, but a poor attempt at trying to reflect the current economic situation.

When its pickup was announced, I hadn’t rolled my eyes and shaken my head so much about a new program since 2007’s Cavemen, which also had no reason seeing the light of day in the first place.

Eight months after that announcement, the inane sitcom finally premiered on January 3rd to a massive critical drubbing and low ratings. The following week, that low rating dropped 20% and on Friday it was cancelled. No surprise there. Work It was just one of those long-delayed shows destined for a quick cancellation. It’s like assembling a car without brakes or a steering wheel, selling it anyway and waiting for it to crash into the nearest wall as soon as it was driven from the lot.

Work It makes me wonder what the hell ABC was thinking. Unlike the also poorly reviewed Whitney on NBC, there was no advice that could have been offered for any level of improvement. There was no amount of tweaking in the world that could make this concept workable.

However, if ABC kept the title, overhauled the premise and revamped the show, they’d have something worth watching.

Though I don’t necessarily want to watch a sitcom that reminds me about what’s going on with the economy, Roseanne proved in the early 1990s that it can be done with humor and realism without being silly or make you feel worse for watching. Then again, underemployment was just one aspect of that groundbreaking sitcom. In the case of Work It, it’s the springboard for the entire series.

Clearly Work It was going for silliness, but the mockery it ultimately made of people’s unemployment status – “can’t find a job, become a woman!” -- is far more of a sad reminder than what was probably intended. In each of the two episodes, we are told WHY they are dressing up as women. We know why and, despite the inanity of the concept, it hits pretty close to home. How far do any of us have to go to find work? How far is too far? Are we ever going to find work? What am I willing to do? Am I doing all I can to find work?

Who needs or wants to think about that every week when they’re already thinking about that EVERYDAY?

I’m going to give the creators the benefit of the doubt and assume that the original concept was about the experience of long-unemployed men and their attempts to find work. Perhaps that was too relateable a concept for some overpaid executive who thought the show would be better served by making cross-dressing part of the premise. They should be slapped.

That might have been funny for one or two episodes – which is how long the series wound up lasting before its cancellation on Friday. And those two episodes could be chock full of the awkward walking, high-pitched talking, skirt-adjusting jokes that could never sustain an entire series.

Because the series leads (who, for their sake, shall remain nameless within the context of this article) look so manly as men, expecting the audience to believe that none of the other characters can tell they are actually men required way too much a suspension of disbelief required to invest in the story. 

In their January 6 issue, Entertainment Weekly reached out to original Buddy Peter Scolari for a review of Work It. Though I was hoping for a skewering, Scolari’s take was pretty neutral. He saw the show for what it was and took none of it seriously. He even admitted to laughing on a few occasions.

While I also admit to a few chuckles and can agree with Scolari that Work It is nothing to take seriously, I take wasted opportunities seriously. And the opportunity to create a comedy that can honestly and humorously reflect these troubled economic times was a wasted opportunity. SHOWING us what these characters are doing to rectify their situation instead of TELLING us every week WHY they are dressing up as women can actually inspire people to come up with new approaches to finding work, look into new opportunities they hadn’t considered before or even to find their own way of earning a living.

But why would an overpaid TV executive think about THAT? It may be a stretch, but so was this series.

Despite the similar premise, there are some differences between Work It and predecessor Bosom Buddies that made the latter work better than the former ever could.

First, the build and facial features of Scolari and co-star Tom Hanks weren’t so overly masculine that it was inconceivable for them to pass as women.

Second, the cross-dressing element had nothing to do with finding work. Their Henry and Kip characters were forced out of a condemned apartment building and the only place they could afford was a women-only facility. Though this was a bit of a stretch, it was still conceivable.

Third, the two men had a friend in the character of Amy (the late Wendie Jo Sperber) who was in on their secret. She could not only help them maintain their cover, but also explain away anything strange about Hildegard and Buffy (the female versions of Henry and Kip). 

Lastly, because a buddy comedy was at the heart of Bosom Buddies, the series was able to expand on its original premise when the cross-dressing concept was dropped at the beginning of the second season. Such wouldn’t be the case with Work It.

For once, I can actually give the general audience credit for some level of discernment. Maybe the network executives will finally begin to see that viewers aren’t as dumb as they think and aren’t just going to watch every piece of crap they put on the air.

I doubt it though.

In the event that there actually was an ABC-sized audience for this insipidness, where was the storyline going to go? How long were viewers expected to believe that NO ONE was going to find out their secret? This isn’t the idiot sitcom era of the 1960s when the infamous My Mother the Car ran for an ENTIRE SEASON. While there will always be room for silly sitcoms – According to Jim ran for EIGHT seasons after all -- audiences will never allow their intelligence (no matter what level) to be insulted.

Interestingly, in the weeks leading up to its premiere, there was more press about how dubiously offensive the series was toward the transgendered community and then just as much press about its quick cancellation than there ever was about its premiere in the first place.

I for one feel bad for the actors who were the names and faces of what had to be either a bad case of network interference or just a desperate sales pitch. At this point, their names and faces are still largely unknown to the public at large. Should any of them achieve mainstream success, we should all have a good laugh over this.