Sunday, January 26, 2014

Don't Trust a, Never Trust a

This may not be something I've addressed before on this blog, but this post needs this preface: I am not a fan of sitcoms. Sure, I've turned to the random episode of Will & Grace for background noise when nothing else half-way decent is on, I watched re-runs of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in college because it was always on in the cafeteria during lunch time, I've seen a ton of Friends episodes simply because the show was unavoidable in the late 90s/early 2000s no matter how clichéd it became, I even tried to like How I Met Your Mother because so many people I know absolutely love it, but I never really enjoy sitcoms as a whole. In general, they rely too much on the slapstick, characters that are more caricature than anything else, and running gags that become so predictable that gag really is the word to describe them. ("We were on a break!" isn't that funny to begin with; as a recurring refrain it's irritating more than anything else.) When I see a joke coming a mile off, I'm no longer interested. And if you need a laugh track to tell your audience that something's funny, I'm out of there. The one notable exception over the years was Scrubs (side note: I have a long blog post in the wings on that show) because it always took things to weird and unexpected places and could make me laugh like no other sitcom.

So without sitcoms as a comedic fall-back, I try to lighten my load of largely dramatic entertainment (whether it be TV, movies, or books) with dramedies like my beloved Gilmore Girls or the weird hybrid cop procedural-comedy that USA offered/offers with Monk and Psych. But with two of those shows off the air and one winding down, it's getting harder to find something to watch that I haven't seen a hundred times before. My other laughs come from Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report and while the writers for those shows can certainly make comedic gold out of straw, when the straw is the real-life news of broken and corrupt government systems and officials, gross income inequality, corporate greed, and racial injustice, sometimes the end result is that I feel more depressed about the world we live in.

Cue me needing a break from all the bleakness and scrolling through what Netflix is offering up as popular these days. Lo and behold, I come across Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. I shrug my shoulders and say, 'what the hey, why don't I give an episode or two a try? It'll probably be stupid but might as well find out for myself.' Then find me finding the show surprisingly interesting and watching all the episodes in a handful of days. (Yes, I am a binge TV watcher. But the show also had only two seasons with a total of 26 episodes before being canceled. Because if a show is a little bit different than the standard fare and a tad quirky and enjoyed by me, then of course it's not going to make it for long when competing with inane comedies, increasingly absurd "reality" TV shows, and whatever other formulaic shows are being offered up by mainstream networks.)

So what's this show about, you ask? Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 opens with perky blonde Midwesterner June landing a dream job on Wall Street complete with relocation costs covered and a gorgeous company-owned apartment for living quarters. It seems too good to be true - and it is, for the company is immediately in shambles when accusations of corporate malfeasance arise. June is out of the street with no place to live or work in a hostile city where she knows no one except Mark, her would-be mentor on Wall Street whom she's met only briefly. But Mark pulls through, landing them both jobs at a local coffee shop (it's not glamorous, but it's a paycheck). Meanwhile, June looks for a roommate and thinks she finds the perfect one in Chloe, despite the cryptic warning from a neighbor: "Don't trust the bitch in apartment 23!" It turns out Chloe is running a scam in which she overcharges the renter, demands three months' worth of rent, and then drives her roommate so crazy that they leave almost instantly. But June finds out about the scam, hangs on through the craziness, and thus begins a beautiful - albeit sometimes dysfunctional - friendship between two very opposite women. Naïve and friendly June is always trying to do the right thing while morally ambiguous Chloe is constantly engaging in some new deception, although sometimes with motives that seem at least partially honorable.

In addition to the Odd Couple pairing of the two roommates, the show rounds out the cast with a number of regulars. There's Mark who becomes June's close friend as well as manager; Robin the neighbor who's obsessed with Chloe and a former victim of her roommate scam (don't think about the second part too much because yeah, the writers weren't thinking that factoid through when they threw it into the show); Eli the creepy pervert neighbor who surprisingly has good advice at times; Chloe's BFF, the sensitive actor James Van Der Beek; and James's flamboyant personal assistant Luther. Other semi-regulars on the show including the parents of both Chloe and June as well as co-workers, various love interests, and June's spiritual adviser Pastor Jin.

Some of the pros of the show (in no particular order) include:
- Non-chronological storytelling done well. The episodes frequently begin with the ending - some weird situation that seems completely random and often out of sync with the narration from June, but we eventually see how events lead up to this situation and why June might be saying something to the likes of "I have the best roommate ever" while Chloe is swinging at her. This kind of out of sorts storytelling isn't uncommon for dramas but it's rarer to see it in a sitcom - and even less likely to be done effectively. There are also fun quick flash backs/flash forwards/brief imagined scenarios scattered throughout, which keep the pace lively and remind me of some of the best parts of Scrubs as well.
- Unpredictable plot lines and twists. Unlike the standard fare for a sitcom, I don't see the jokes coming and I can't tell where the storyline is going. I am 100% sucked in to each episode because I really have no idea what to expect next. The writers are not afraid to go down the rabbit hole or introduce situations that are stranger than the average viewer would imagine.
- The absurdity of the situations presented. Some sitcoms choose to find comedy in the everyday routines of life - workplace woes, dating disasters, children's mishaps, etc. - but others choose to go to the other extreme and show us lives vastly different than our own. I like both kinds of comedies, but only provided that they are well done (which, as I believe I've made clear, most sitcoms do not do). Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 goes for the latter option, with characters who party all the time, hang with celebrities, and get mixed up in scams for either money or pranks. This is certainly entertainment that provides relief from the everyday problems we all face from time to time. When watching Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, it's unlikely that a situation will occur that makes you start thinking about office politics, sitting in traffic, housework piling up, etc. For those 20-odd minutes while you're watching an episode, you are completely sucked into this world and not worrying about yours.
- Lots of random references to all kinds of things, with a huge helping of pop culture ones (some I had to look up) in the mix. I love when shows do this.
- Diversity in the cast. The show is set in New York City, one of the epicenters of the racial and ethnic melting pot that is this country, so it's only fitting that the characters be of various backgrounds and not just a bunch of middle-class Caucasians like in some shows (::cough:: Friends ::cough::).
- Quirky and interesting characters that are both unusual for TV and slightly more developed than the typical comedy caricature. Again, the writers were fearless - in this case, having no compunction with creating characters that wouldn't be likeable.
  • Chloe borders on sociopathic with her party life of instant gratification and various cons to get what she wants, regardless of whether it's lying to strangers at bars to get free drinks or tricking June into causing a scene at a family Thanksgiving dinner so it's not Chloe ruining the holiday for a change. Yet at the end of each episode, you feel compelled to view on and see what antics Chloe will come up with next. On a couple of occasions, I even found myself rooting for Chloe to get what she wanted in that episode. And her character is so unpredictable that she really makes the show interesting and varied. I found myself sitting and thinking, 'oh, Chloe is becoming a deeper person and she's revealing something personal about herself,' only to be fooled by another of her games. Yet there are certainly times when Chloe does grow as a person so her character is never by any means static. But even when her intentions are good, Chloe goes about things in her own twisted way ...
  • June may the moral center of the show (as well as its narrator) but that doesn't mean she's always the most likeable one. Sometimes her naivety and worldview can be as annoying as they are endearing. In the early episodes, her obsession with following her life plan to be settled down rankled me. (You think you eventually want to get married and have children? Fine. You set a time table for when each of these important life events must occur? Don't even get me started. I've met people like this in real life. They're not fun to be around.) But June also grows and changes as a character, working to shed parts of herself that are too rigid and learning to allow some spontaneity to spice up her life while still following her dreams.
  • Eli is the perfect example of not being afraid to go there. His character is introduced as the crudest of perverts, always looking out his window and into the girls' apartment (and I won't go further into describing his behavior). But despite it all, his character morphs from one I absolutely detested to someone who becomes a half-way decent person. Sure, he's still constantly at his window by season two but now he's giving helpful advice rather than leering.
  • Having James Van Der Beek play James Van Der Beek = brilliant. I was never a Dawson's Creek fan and I can't recall seeing Van Der Beek in anything other than his special guest appearance as a killer with dissociative identity disorder on a two-part episode of Criminal Minds, so I had no idea if he would do well in a comedy. Well, I absolutely love him here. The fictionalized version of himself is full of comic gold as he obsesses over being a celebrity dancer on Dancing with the Stars, wonders why he's never been nominated for People's Sexiest Man Alive, or even just holds an anti-scary Halloween party. Having Chloe hobnob with a celebrity BFF also allows for a variety of guest stars to pop up without it feeling forced. Of course, Busy Philipps might just show up in an episode because she is a former co-star after all. (Incidentally, the diner where James and Busy meet looks oddly similar to the Royal Diner in Bones, a completely different kind of show on another network all together. Did anyone else notice a similarity?) These kinds of random appearances work much better in this fictionalized world than in other TV shows where a guest star has to be crammed into a script in some weird way requiring contortionist feats in order to make any kind of sense.
  • Mark is the character that is the most difficult for me to wrap my head around. He certainly serves many functions - June's boss as well as her confidante, potential suitor for both girls, and occasional adversarial friend to James as well - but his role seems the least well defined. Mark is the closest to the "nice guy"/normal character you'll see in this show, although he is certainly not the straight man of the typical comedy routine. He has his own quirks and quips throughout the show; however, sometimes his lines/jokes are the most out of the blue and therefore occasionally less funny. At times his character can be very serious, pushing the other characters to a realization about themselves or their current situation, while other times he just comes across as incredibly goofy. Mark is definitely the most difficult character to peg. Of course, this also means that he can come across as the most "real" character, for people in real life tend to be a mixed bag of all sorts of different things.
  • Robin is introduced as "in love with" Chloe, but it's never really clear what exactly that entails. She is not necessarily a lesbian (or not exclusively one at least, for she is depicted on one occasion as enthralled in a non-platonic way by James as Dawson). Despite the claim of love for Chloe, at times Robin actually seems irritated by or angry with Chloe. Mostly it seems like she's enamored of Chloe's lifestyle and just wants to be let into that inner circle, thinking that being Chloe's friend will make her instantaneously cool. To that end, she is more than willing to do things like pick up Chloe's mail, stock her fridge with food, or borrow a limo from a cousin in order to haul Chloe and her friends up to the Hamptons for a weekend. Therefore, Robin pops up at random times under unusual circumstances. Again, though, she is like a real person in that her motivations are murky (perhaps even to herself) and hard to pin down. Liza Lapira really rocks this role, as she does in any other bit part I've seen her in before whether it's the fledging agent Michelle on NCIS or the eye-rolling, thinks-she's-better-than-anyone-else-present swim class student in The Big Bad Swim. The only real downside with Robin was that by the second season, we were seeing her show up in apartment 23 less often.
  • Luther is the most unfortunately caricatured character on the show. He is the quintessential effeminate fashionista homosexual sidekick who looks at Chloe as though she is the enemy he'd most like to "bitch slap" rather than allow her to have more influence over James than he has. (Sadly for him, he usually loses when it comes to gaining James's affinity.) Luther is certainly a funny addition to the cast and has some real zingers, but he is the character that seems most like, well, a character.
  • The parents are always fun when they pop up. June skypes with her parents regularly with mom usually taking the forefront; she ends up becoming an adviser to James on his career in general but in particular with regard to Dancing with the Stars. Chloe's parents have a strained relationship that helps to explain her own dysfunction; as characters, they add hilarity and absurdity to any situation. Whenever Chloe's parents are going to be on an episode, you know you're going to end up with some sort of ridiculousness going down.
  • Pastor Jin is the leader of the Korean church that June feels is a fitting community for her Midwestern values. Pastor Jin, however, is far more liberal than the stereotypical reverend, which ends up feeling fitting with the June that evolves on the show.
Of course, no show is perfect and there are some cons to Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23:
- Chloe's questionable morals and scams can sometimes cross a line. Yes, I understand that part of her character is that she pushes the limits, but there are some things that seem over the top. Chloe sleeping around with married men is something many of us would not condone, but it's not an unheard of thing by any stretch of the imagination. But it's completely unnecessary for Chloe to offhandedly remark that "Tranq sex is consensual." in an episode uses a tranquilizer gun as part of the plot. Joking about the heinous crime of rape just isn't funny. (Ask Daniel Tosh about the blowback on that mistake.)
- Likewise, there are other lines/situations that perhaps stretch/blur common taste. In one episode, James comes to the realization that an old acting coach behaved inappropriately with him. Later in the episode, Mark and June dish the gossip together with Mark starting the conversation with a comment to the effect of "I think James was molested by a former acting coach." Cut to a scene of Van Der Beek sitting alone on a stoop in his underwear looking deep in thought and upset. After a few moments, he get up, states that he is okay, and walks away. Again, making jokes about something like the sexual molestation of a teenaged boy = not funny. It's a real crime and its victims don't just shake it off after a few minutes sitting thoughtfully. Comedy walks a fine line between being funny and just being insulting/offensive. It's not just the writers of Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 who seem to have a bit of difficulty navigating that line; all comics seem to falter from time to time. Luckily these kinds of moments are rare in this show and most of the funny bits are actually funny.
- There were two episodes in season 1 ("The Leak" and "Parent Trap") that fell a little flat. They were not bad episodes but they were a little disappointing compared to the high caliber of the rest of the show. It's unfortunate to have two relative duds early on in a show, especially given how easily the networks seem to be giving up on shows lately.
- The title of the show is off-putting. There are some people who were probably turned off by the use of profanity in the title; however, if they are that squeamish, this show isn't for them anyway. The reason I found the title inappropriate was that it told me little to nothing about the content of the show. It also puts the emphasis on Chloe when the show is really about the two women and their relationship with/influence over each other as well as relying heavily on the supporting cast for situations, comedic effect, and character development. And, the title gave the impression that it wouldn't be a show with (arguably) positive portrayals of women as multi-layered people with many different motivations but rather one that resorted to name-calling in the worse way. Sandy Cohen of The Associated Press delves more deeply into the implications of putting the word "bitch" in the title of a TV show with this article.
- And, of course, the biggest con of all is that the show ended far too soon. With only two seasons under its belt, Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 definitely still had a lot of territory to explore. Chloe's crazy antics could only be hampered by the writers' imagination; June and Mark might continue to work through their feelings for each other; Luther's novel could have been picked up by a publisher; and James might continue his quest to find his real father. The final episode of season two (which ended up being the series finale) also introduced the possibility of Chloe and June taking their friendship to a new level beyond the shallow end of the pool as Chloe finally began to open up about her real feelings and thoughts. And since I could so rarely predict where the show was going to go at any given moment, there's no way I could predict where it would have gone if the writers were given more seasons to develop these characters and find new situations for them.

While I don't think I'll ever find another comedy I'll like as much Scrubs, which I still find incredibly and ridiculously funny even after having seen almost every episode multiple times now, I was pleasantly surprised with Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. If you don't mind watching something with unlikeable - albeit quirky and fun in their own way - characters, you might just find yourself laughing along if you give the show a try also.

No comments:

Post a Comment