Just Short of Brain-Dead
Several years ago, I attended a Halloween street party in Dallas, where I came across two men in drag. Both were wearing make-up, dresses, wigs, pantyhose, and high heels, but their hairy chests and five-o’clock shadows made it clear that they weren’t truly into drag.
I was reminded of these two men while watching ABC’s controversial new sitcom, Work It, about two guys who can’t find jobs until they create female personas. However, these new personas are as convincing as the two guys in Dallas, and you would have to be just short of brain-dead to believe they were actual women.
Apparently, the staff at Coreco Pharmaceuticals is just that. They not only hire Lee (Benjamin Koldyke) and Angel (Amaury Nolasco) at their all-woman office, but also engage them in frequent rounds of girl-talk. Herein lies the basic problem of Work It: believability. The show’s premise, that the economic downturn has led these best friends and former St. Louis Pontiac dealership employees to seek any kind of work is surely believable (if old: see Tootsie). But their performances as men pretending to be women are laughable, and not in good way.
Laid off as a car salesman Lee—who has a wife and daughter to consider—first thinks he’s found a lead, when he hears of a job as a rep for Coreco. But then he learns that the company only hires women. So he does the wholly logical thing: he dresses up in drag and gets the job.
On his first day on the new job, Lee steps out to a fast food joint for lunch, where he encounters Angel, a mechanic now working the counter. Since they had made a pact that the first one to get a “good” job would help the other get hired as well, Lee cues Angel into his deception. Angel is reluctant, asserting, “This kind of thing, it don’t really fly in my culture.” Lee responds to this cliché with his own version: “Oh? ‘Cause my culture just freakin’ loves it.” And so Angel applies at Coreco too.
At the office, Lee and Angel’s new colleagues fulfill the checklist of sitcommy office stereotypes: the manager Vanessa (Rochelle Aytes) is practical, hiring Angel only after she/he fixes her car. Kelly (Kate Reinders) is the party girl, Kristin (Kirstin Eggers) is naïve bubblehead, and Grace (Rebecca Maders) the snobby ice princess. All are in need of life lessons from the boys, and all must have poor vision: none questions the authenticity of the decidedly masculine rookies.
Their jobs secured, the Lee and Angel begin to face what it means to be women. Or, more precisely, men in high heels in a poorly conceived sitcom. We must endure the obligatory learning to dress scene, as Lee struggles with how to put on a bra, what outfit is most slimming, and how to hide a noticeable bulge in the crotch (he ends up using an ace bandage to bind himself), all while the Black-Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” plays. We see Lee feel objectified (he tells Angel, “My eyes are up here”), and Angel struggle with his heterosexual desires, as he tells Lee that his main problem with the interview was how “hot” Rebecca is. As he describes it, “My ace bandage was holding on for dear life.”
Following in the tradition of Some Like It Hot and Bosom Buddies, the show submits that Lee and Angel’s new lives will alter their perceptions of women, as made evident in the pilot’s closing scene. As they sit in a bar as their male selves, Lee encourages Angel to go talk to another “hot” woman. When he does, though, all Angel can ask of her is how she manages to wear such a tight skirt without panty lines showing.
Yes, this is what he’s learned.
The controversy surrounding Work It will generate more viewers than it deserves. GLAAD President Mike Thompson argues that the show “will reinforce the mistaken belief that transgender women are simply ‘men pretending to be women,’ and that their efforts to live their lives authentically as women are a form of lying or deception.” I failed to get that message from the show, and saw nothing that denigrated trans persons.
What I did see was two straight men desperate enough to do anything to get a job. The real problem with Work It s that it can wring nothing funny out of this situation, only strained, dated gags. The show’s most egregious offense is that it is uninspired and unoriginal. Cross-dressing persons can be found in Greek comedies, the works of Shakespeare, and early silent films. Were Work It to offer something new to the debates and conversations about male and female gender roles, it might be worthy of our time. Instead, it will most likely be remembered for years to come, alongside My Mother, the Car and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, as one of TV’s truly bad ideas.