The Importance of Being Earnestly Bitchy

May 29, 2013

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The Importance of Being Earnestly Bitchy

The golden age of television sitcoms petered out in the late 1990s when NBC couldn’t convince Jerry Seinfeld to come back for one more season despite offering him a salary of $110 million. (His three costars would have been paid a total of $66 million.)

Similarly, as the salaries of the cast of Friends approached over $140 million annually (one million per episode for each, with Jennifer Aniston getting more), networks began to search for business models that weren’t as dependent upon the expert interplay of unique personalities.

In 2000, the triumphant debut of Survivor on CBS demonstrated that audiences would be almost as fascinated to watch nobodies compete for (as Dr. Evil would say) one…million...dollars.

Meanwhile, cable networks such as HBO and AMC found that they could ensnare higher-end viewers in long-running soap operas.

Apartment 23 is a show about two women that demonstrates zero respect for feminist dogma.”

Yet old-fashioned sitcoms remain potential money-gushers because they are best suited to syndication. Once a viewer finds out who wins American Idol or what happens to Don Draper, nobody is particularly interested in watching again. On the other hand, the likable, competently made sitcom about Caltech nerds, The Big Bang Theory, is on track to rank first in the Nielsens this year in both primetime and syndication.

The shot at that kind of money continues to attract tremendous talent to the sitcom, even if the genre doesn’t generate much buzz. Thus, perhaps the most brilliant sitcom of the decade is ABC’s almost unknown screwball comedy of 2012 with the unwieldy title Don’t Trust the B——in Apartment 23.

ABC pulled the plug in January with eight episodes left unseen. Fortunately, ABC.com, Hulu, and iTunes will be offering the lost episodes online through June 2.

In the show, June (played by Dreama Walker) is a nice, wholesome blonde from Indiana who moves to Manhattan to start her dream job working for Bernie Madoff the day he’s hauled off in handcuffs. Defeated but undaunted, she gets a waitress job and a roommate, lovely ex-model Chloe (the slightly pop-eyed Krysten Ritter, a cartoon Audrey Hepburn), who turns out to be a sociopathic Holly Golightly fleecing naïve newcomers. 

But amoral Chloe is also cooler than everybody in Indiana put together—for instance, her best friend is June’s girlhood crush, Dawson’s Creek star James Van Der Beek (as portrayed by Dawson’s Creek star James Van Der Beek). Will Chloe corrupt June before June’s corn-fed decency reforms Chloe?

This comedy was created by Nahnatchka Khan, who got her start with Malcolm in the Middle, the high-energy live-action Simpsons. She seems to identify more with her male supporting characters in a manner reminiscent of Camille Paglia. Van Der Beek, for instance, is affable in his masculine arrogance. (“Because I’m a celebrity” is his levelheaded explanation for every privilege he’s afforded.)

Apartment 23 treats virtually every sacred cow in current American culture with gleeful contempt. June’s boss at the coffee shop, meek mulatto Mark (Eric Andre), who worships June from afar, is virtually the only Obama parody in American entertainment. The joke is that, unlike the president, poor Mark inherited his white parent’s level of self-esteem.

James’s personal assistant Luther (Ray Ford) is a portly black man who, just as his name suggests, looks much like that new 30-foot-tall statue on the National Mall of Martin Luther King—except that he’s flamingly effeminate. (In a series full of scene-stealers, Luther is the funniest of all.) These days, you aren’t supposed to portray gays on TV as less masculine than straights. And you definitely aren’t supposed to take Martin Luther King’s name in vain. 

In the spirit of Chloe’s superfluous malice, are these intentional jabs at America’s two most untouchable racial icons? Why not? These days, who would even be aware of the show’s lack of reverence? As far as I can tell, nobody on the Internet has even noticed these jokes.

More fundamentally, Apartment 23 is a show about two women that demonstrates zero respect for feminist dogma. Chloe is as vicious toward June as city girl Gwendolen is to country girl Cecily in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a play that appears to be a model for Apartment 23’s war on sentiment, cliché, and cant. 

The storyline’s meandering arc seems intended to eventually riff on Earnest’s plot of babies lost and found. I suspect Chloe’s long-suffering mother and June’s opportunist mom somehow had their newborns switched in the maternity ward. 

Already, at the end of season two, James discovers that the man he calls “Dad” isn’t his real father. His mother elucidates that his biological father was one of the summer stock cast of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but his mother can’t remember which brother. “It was the 70s,” she notes.

Later, James explains to Chloe and June, “My real father is one of these seven dancers,” showing them a photo of seven leaping bearded chorus boys.

The always hovering and ever helpful Luther squints at the picture and pokes his finger, “Gay, gay…and gay.”

“My real father is one of these four dancers,” James patiently amends. 

At the series’ best, Chloe’s elaborate conspiracies against other characters are contrived not out of base motives for personal gain but out of aristocratic disdain for anything common. She’s an artist of living, an avenging angel who punishes anyone who doesn’t meet her inordinate standards of cynicism.

Things are funny because they are true—truer than many like to admit in this Age of Schmaltz. Not surprisingly, this high comedy failed to capture a mass audience on broadcast television.


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