'Whitney' Feels Like a Step Backwards for Women in TV

Whitney's focus on women doesn’t make it especially "feminist." They don't talk about anything other than their romantic pairings.


Airtime: Thursdays, 9:30pm ET
Cast: Whitney Cummings, Chris D'Elia, Zoe Lister Jones, Jennifer Birmingham
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: NBC
Air date: 2011-09-22

Whitney Cummings, a comedian best known for her appearances on Chelsea Lately, has two shows premiering this season. She's a co-executive producer on CBS' Two Broke Girls, as well as the co-executive producer, writer, and star of her eponymous Whitney. This might sound like a feminist triumph in an industry notoriously harsh to women -- until you watch Whitney.

The series premiere introduces us to Whitney, the character, and her live-in boyfriend, Alex (Chris D'Elia). They have friends, too: a brassy divorcee named Sarah (Jennifer Birmingham) and Lily (Zoe Lister Jones), who's very much into her new boyfriend, Neal (Maulik Pancholy). These friends have particular attitudes towards marriage and sex. Sarah feels burned out by the dating world ("I'm 33," she says. "My chi is tired"). And Lily has Neal whipped enough that he helps her catch the bouquet at a wedding.

But all this focus on women doesn’t make the show especially "feminist." The women on Whitney don't talk about anything other than their romantic pairings. We don't know what Sarah does for a living; Lily pays lip service to being a food critic, then has Whitney take a sexy about-the-author photo for her blog, despite the fact that real food critics don't publish their photos to preserve the anonymity that's essential to their profession. Whitney herself is obsessed with her sex life and whether or not she should want to get married. During this first episode, the source of her anxiety is, of all things, a Cosmo article.

The comedy here might be more apparent if Cummings was more nimble in the medium of television, and less rooted in her experience as a stand-up comedian. Whitney's world isn't populated by characters, just mouthpieces for bits. They don't talk to each other, they spout one-liners in succession. "Half of all marriages end." Whitney tells Alex. "If half of all planes crashed, would you still fly?"

The direction is as awkward as the dialogue. Whitney is less like a TV show than a staged reading of a stand-up routine. Characters don't move, but instead, stand rooted in a living room, sit on couches. This is partly because Whitney is a multi-camera comedy, but other shows in this format -- Seinfeld, for instance, with all of its energetic character entrances and exists -- didn't feel as static. The stiffness is exacerbated by Whitney herself: she's not an actress, she doesn't know what to do with her arms as she talks, and resorts to waving them around. Someone, please get that woman a microphone.

As if to underscore a comedy club experience, Whitney is also punctuated by laughter. Don't call it a laugh track. An obnoxious protesting-too-much voiceover announces after the first break, "Whitney is taped in front of a live studio audience. You heard me." So now you know: someone in that live audience thinks the show is funny. Or laughs as if she does.

Inside a club, perhaps, it's not necessary to acknowledge how the world works. In Whitney, the meddlesome details of reality that get in the way of Cummings' jokes are roundly ignored. At one point, Alex tells Whitney she can't wear a white dress to a wedding -- something that's not really common knowledge among men, but we can let that slide because they're an "unconventional couple" -- so she changes into a yellow one. They get to the wedding, and the bride walks down the aisle wearing a yellow wedding dress. Of course, she's angry at Whitney. "Nice dress," Whitney mutters, as if talking to a stranger at a work function.

It's not inconceivable that a bride would wear a yellow wedding dress, though it is unusual. But it seems likely the bride would have talked to her friends about the dress she bought before the wedding, especially if it was an unconventional color. It seems less likely that she'd be mad at guests for wearing yellow if she'd hadn't previously spread the word. Do Whitney and Alex even know this bride? And, if they do, why does Whitney turn passive-aggressive about her own dress, rather than congratulating her friend on the day of her nuptials? Does Whitney Cummings know what weddings are, how they work, or how you get invited to one?

Cummings' background notwithstanding, ideally, Whitney might be a step forward for women in television, both on-screen and behind the scenes. It would follow in the tradition of other NBC shows Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock, comedies that are produced by women and focused on fully realized female characters living life on their own terms in a world that resembles the real one. Instead, with its stilted scenes, canned laughter, and handwringing about marriage, Whitney feels more like a step backward.

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