Wanda Does It

I think I was one of the only television critics who genuinely loved Wanda Sykes’ short-lived sitcom, Wanda At Large. Apparently, I was also one of the only viewers who kept tuning in week after week because the show sprinted to an early finish. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the rickety script and canned characters for what they were, but I felt like there was so much room to blossom, with Sykes’ pushy persona leading the way to a world where people — or at least she — might speak truth to power, hilariously.

And yet, despite all my good will going in, Sykes’ new show, Wanda Does It, barely solicited a weak grin. It borrows from Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s improvisational sensibility (perhaps owing to the good times she’s had when guesting on that show), though missing Larry David’s bracing balance awkward conversation and acidic one-liners. Wanda Does It, chock full of commercial breaks in its half-hour format, produces an overwhelming feeling that much of what doesn’t normally get captured by the camera, probably shouldn’t be.

Wanda Does It tries to have it both ways, or several ways. It’s difficult to tell exactly what is and isn’t the “reality” portion. During the segments that purport to be slices of Sykes’ everyday life, actors play characters alongside actual friends playing themselves, but in situations that could not possibly have happened. That leaves the show’s core — Wanda learning various jobs — jumbled. Are the career segments also scripted? Are her coworkers and instructors also actors? If so, then for God’s sake, this reality forgery needs to be funnier.

Wanda on the job would work on its own, without all the postmodern blurring. In one such sequence, when she’s fast-tracking her way into a day stint as a repo woman, a few comic sparks fly. The owner of the repo business tells her she has to take a drug test and her eyes widen before she replies, “I think I may need, like, a week before I can take that.” She bounces around in her camouflage hat as she places the towing hook on the chasses of delinquent vehicles and stealthily returns to the truck for take off. Sykes is riff-ready for interaction with regular folks, if indeed these were regular folks.

The least intriguing aspect is Sykes’ dull backstory, represented here as alcoholism and a dysfunctional entanglement with an obsessive-compulsive queen of a handler. (As they say: nothing ventured, nothing ventured.) Tim Bagley, playing this manager, named Tim Brewer, camps his way through the role, kvetching at every inappropriate thing she says and burdening his character with so many facial tics and cloying weaknesses that he becomes implausible. Would Sykes keep a manager who incessantly questions her choices or labels her behavior “impolitic”? Similarly overwrought, Sue Murphy plays Sykes’ friend Sue Murphy, cursing in the street as her car (which she’s purchased with a bounced check) is dragged away, but looking like she was suppressing laughter at the ridiculousness of the scene.

The bad acting doesn’t just grate; it breaks the suspension of disbelief that would make the show’s rougher edges tolerable. Once I realized that Wanda Does It isn’t reality television, I became acutely aware that it was half way over and I hadn’t laughed once. Sykes is ornery with her agent. Sykes makes cracks about doing drugs. Sykes drinks with her boring friends. Again, the viewer is left confused about who is an actor and who isn’t, confused about whether or not she trained to do these jobs or didn’t, but fairly certain about feeling bored.

Still, Wanda Does It has potential to burn, even if hobbled by a concept not yet fully developed. Maybe Sykes’ observational sass and switchblade candor are best suited to stand-up. But then I remember her turn as Biggie Shorty in the criminally under-acclaimed Pootie Tang, and I hold out hope that somebody, somewhere, will find a vehicle for her massive talent.