As its title suggests, 2 Broke Girls is about two women without any money. Max (Kat Dennings) came by her poverty honestly: she was born into it. Caroline (Beth Behrs), on the other hand, has had it thrust upon her, having recently fallen from debutante grace after her father was exposed for running a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme.
The setting for most of the first episode is a diner in Brooklyn, which is supposed to be in a bad neighborhood, but seems to draw a hip urban clientele. Max is a no-nonsense waitress who doesn’t suffer fools, whether they are coworkers or paying customers. There is some enjoyment to be had in watching her tell people off—say, a couple of 20something posers in knit caps—but these promising early jabs only set up the predictable plot turn, when someone walks through the door to challenge her.
Caroline, who arrives in a fancy dress and too much jewelry, isn’t an ideal version of that someone. Somehow she was hired as the new waitress in the restaurant. We might overlook the lack of such background details if the show provided a compelling present situation, say, Caroline matching wits with Max, or maybe with customers. Unfortunately, it does not.
There is a distinguished history in sitcoms where an attractive woman appears in a bar/restaurant/coffee shop with her life in shambles and quickly finds a new better (and much funnier) experience waiting for her. In the Cheers pilot, Diane (Shelley Long) arrived at the bar, bereft, and was offered a job as a waitress by Sam (Ted Danson). That first episode lit the wick on one of the most satisfying slow-burn relationships in sitcom history. There was a very similar set-up on Friends, when Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) walked into a coffee shop after walking out on her wedding, and found five brand new best friends there.
It may be unfair to compare 2 Broke Girls to two of the best sitcoms ever made. Those shows both began with remarkable confidence and humor, inviting you to invest in the relationships to rhythms that then developed over time. But 2 Broke Girls doesn’t open with much of an invitation. In this diner, no one knows anyone’s name: Caroline underlines the point when she says she took the job there because no one would ever recognize her.
In this lackluster setting, the show strains to create a connection between the girls: it turns out that Max makes delicious cupcakes and Caroline has an MBA from Wharton, which makes them perfect business partners. They just need $250,000 in start-up funds. At the end of the pilot, we get a tally for their savings so far—somewhere around $300. Presumably, that number will rise and fall in subsequent episodes, depending on how much they earn during each half-hour.
But this is a sitcom, not a game show, and such calculations, as much as they might allude to current conditions for many viewers, are not in themselves endearing. We’re not going to pull for Max and Caroline the way we do for the hyperactive schmos on The Price is Right.
It seems a missed opportunity: the premise of the spoiled rich kid and the sassy poor kid forced to team up is an old story that often works. But both Caroline and Max come across as prep school students who are slumming. Within minutes of meeting, whatever animosity they felt toward each other has morphed into a friendship, draining the show of the conflict it needs.
Neither is this conflict isn’t provided by supporting characters. Each has a few humorless jokes to deliver, as if the writers are holding auditions to see if any of them should be recurring. Oleg (Jonathan Kite) is a Russian cook who tries to pick up the waitresses by insulting them. Han Lee (Matthew Moy), the diner’s owner¸ is trying to sound less like an immigrant by changing his name to Bryce Lee, which is supposed to be funny either because it sounds like Bruce Lee or because with his heavy accent no one would believe he’s named Bryce. It’s more than a little disappointing to see a show in 2011 dip into the clueless foreigner joke well, not once, but twice in the first half hour.
And then we have Earl the cashier (Garrett Morris), who speaks in off-color non sequiturs, the most unfortunate one being a reference to a cheerleader getting raped by Duke lacrosse players—which manages to be both dated and offensive. If you remember Morris in his classic SNL skits, insult is piled on top of the injury. You’re left hoping he doesn’t pass the sidekick auditions and end up as a regular on this show.
At the end of 2 Broke Girls’ premiere, in one of the more forced visual gags in a show full of forced jokes, Max and Caroline are sitting on Caroline’s horse on their apartment patio. It is weird, but not in a good way. You have to wonder how they got the horse there, which is not at all what you should be thinking about as they fire off lame one-liners. You know the show has a problem when you start wondering how much they could add to their cupcake shop ledger if they sold the horse.