First, imagine King of Queens. Now, put Kevin James in a Pilates class for a year, reverse all the genders on the show, keep the jokes about men versus women as well as the laugh-track, make the couple dysfunctionally unmarried instead of dysfunctionally married, and promote it as a scandalous new take on the sitcom for the 21st century, and you’ve got Whitney, a fairly standard men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus sitcom dressed up as a refreshing new take on modern love.
For the past several weeks, Whitney Cummings, the show’s star and creator, whose foul-mouthed stand-up has made her a regular on Chelsea Lately and the Comedy Central Roast circuit, has been at the center of a press imbroglio surrounding her new show’s gender politics. Some smart feminist bloggers have taken issue with the show’s promotional billboards, one of which features a hackneyed battle-of-the-sexes joke that suggests giving men the “silent treatment” may be a reward. From this perspective, the ad campaign’s injunction to “See things Whitney’s way!” is also, essentially, an invitation to see things Ray Romano’s way, and Whitney simply reproduces sexist plot conventions that have fueled all-male sitcom writers’ rooms since the days of yore.
Whitney‘s place at the forefront of a new wave of lady-centric sitcoms makes this all the more regrettable, and while criticism of the show’s ad campaign is certainly fair, NBC is apparently not the only organization in America reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine published last weekend, Cummings was asked, first, if she had slept her way to the top; second, if Chelsea Handler had slept her way to the top; and third, if she felt that her looks were the key to her success. The moral of this story is that we live in a world dominated by corrosive gender stereotypes. We also live in a world where a majority of new sitcoms produced every fall aren’t necessarily very good when they start out.
Whitney follows the misadventures of Whitney Cummings, a brainy, brash, late-twentysomething with a huggably unshaven live-in boyfriend (Chris D’Elia). The pilot’s plot—which is composed of a long set piece at a friend’s wedding and another involving some disastrously fumbled sexual roleplay—focuses on the plight of this happily unmarried, but committed, couple as they face the raised eyebrows of their parents and the peer pressure of their contemporaries. While Whitney casually reinforces a lot of the gender stereotypes that the show’s billboards threatened it would, and while the pilot moves along powered mostly by plenty of shoulder-shrugging, that’s-so-Whitney moments, it’s decently written and slightly funnier than your average first-year sitcom. There are, as one might expect from Cummings, a fair number of blue-ish one-liners, and she generously spreads the good ones around to her fellow castmates, most notably D’Elia and Rhea Seehorn, who plays the brassy, single Roxanne.
What remains troubling is that, outside of its main conceit, Whitney isn’t particularly insightful about the lives of the young Americans it represents. There is—or should be, at least—a lot of comic material to be mined in depicting the cultures of post-post-grad men and women who want to chart a course for themselves that doesn’t necessarily end with marriage, children, and a house in the suburbs—as Friends, a clear precursor to Whitney, emphatically did. While it’s built around a topical premise, Cummings’s show is classicist to the core. From the live studio audience to the Honeymooners-style central relationship to the telegraphed laugh lines, Whitney is all throwback. And in the aforementioned roleplay scene, Cummings even shows that she has a knack for slapstick. The scene takes a few wacky turns and ends up in the hospital, where we’re met with a somewhat on-the-nose twist about visitation rights, but even with this political bite, the show largely treads disappointingly familiar territory.