“We’re having a party for no reason!” somebody shouts across a crowded room midway through the crowded second episode of ABC’s crowded new sitcom Don’t Trust the B——in Apartment 23, and it strikes me as a particularly apt mission statement for the series. The show is based on a nonsense conceit only nominally tethered to a contemporary reality—spunky Midwestern girl moves to the big city only to lose her job in a corporate meltdown and move in with a gangly con artist with Uma Thurman bangs who’s best friends with James Van Der Beek—and it’s filled to the brim with wacky characters and situations that were seemingly selected at random. Don’t Trust the B—— may seem like a show about female friendship or the fate of the American Dream in the modern U.S., but it actually appears to be a sitcom about whatever comes into the mind of creator Nanatchka Khan. It’s a party someone is throwing for no reason. That said, it actually turns out to be a pretty fun party, even if it’s sometimes hard to figure out why you’re there.
Before we go on, let’s get something out of the way: Just as the word has been scrubbed from ABC’s GCB (originally titled Good Christian Bitches), the word “bitch” is coyly censored in this show’s title, opening credits, and cutesy, coffee-shop theme song. The network is apparently interested in gently nudging things in an edgier direction, but while ABC has sex and profanity on the mind, it’s as skittish as Buster Bluth about acting on those impulses. As opposed to a genuinely random, filthy, upsettingly hilarious series like FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Don’t Trust the B—— can only ever come off as aspirationally dirty. The innocent protagonist, June (Dreama Walker), is dry-humping her roommate’s father by the second episode, and a peeping-tom neighbor (Michael Blaiklock) is very strongly implied to be secretly masturbating in every one of his scenes, but it’s all a light dusting of blue humor on top of what’s essentially just a pomo Friends.
Still, Don’t Trust the B—— is funny enough to overlook its spurious reason for existence and unpredictable enough to keep things from stagnating. The series isn’t jaw-droppingly hilarious, but the writing is self-assured and full of punchy, Tweetable one-liners; its thin skein of a concept is enough to lend the proceedings some narrative structure, but not enough to make it feel programmatic, and its central performances are confident right out of the gate. Walker plays a classic naïf with a strong narrative voice and the potential to develop into a real, relatable character. As Chloe, her grifter roommate, however, Krysten Ritter is the show’s true revelation, channeling the best weirdness of Lisa Kudrow and the farcical but believable sexuality of Julia Louis Dreyfus. She steals the show when the show isn’t already being stolen by Van Der Beek, playing himself in an unexpectedly touching comic tour de force that revises and deepens the kind of goofball played by Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold & Kumar movies. The show could easily be about him alone.
With its oil-and-vinegar leads and the stagey apartment setting, Don’t Trust the B—— might initially draw comparisons to The Odd Couple, but it often feels more like an adult Sesame Street made for people who are too squeamish to watch FX: it’s set in a carefully, modestly begrimed New York; it features an innocent human child (Walker, in this case) learning life lessons from a set of a grungy but lovable muppets; and it even has a celebrity guest! Instead of exposing the dark realities of unemployment or the sexual confusion of early adulthood, the show merely suggests that issues like these exist and then quickly sublimates them. The world of Don’t Trust the B—— is a space in which sex-positive women roam freely, only to be counterbalanced by the presence of a prudish protagonist and some sadly predictable gay panic. It’s a place where the fragile economy is just a bummer that’s no match for abrasive positivity or guile. Finally, it’s a place where a compromised sense of morality is compulsory, but every scummy decision leads to a cheeky moment of self-affirmation.
Anchored by three exceptional leads, Don’t Trust the B—— has a choice to make. Does it become a misadventure-of-the-week featuring a cast of lovable, loathable loons in the model of It’s Always Sunny? Or does it become a serialized nuthouse centered on the importance of, say, friendship the way Arrested Development grounded its whirligig on the abstract importance of family? For right now, it’s a little bit of both. This manic composition may prove hard to sustain in the long term, but too much is way better than not enough. Any host knows that’s the first rule of throwing a good party.