I miss “Friends.”
That’s all I could think about as I trudged through “Whitney,” NBC’s latest attempt at filling one of the holes “Friends” left on Thursday nights when it finished (a couple seasons after it should have, to be fair) in 2004. The network has found some gems in “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Community” and “Parks and Recreation.” But there’s always that other spot to fill, the one that seems cursed by the many multi-camera comedies that once ruled the night for NBC, from “Seinfeld” to “Frasier” to “Will & Grace.” Recent inductees into the network’s comedy graveyard include “Perfect Couples” and “Outsourced,” as well as others I’ve thankfully forgotten. Hopefully, “Whitney,” a bland, unfunny, wannabe “Friends,” joins them. Soon.
Whitney Cummings has been touted as this fall’s “It” girl, producing both her star turn in “Whitney” and “2 Broke Girls” on CBS, but the fact that her biggest previous credit is appearing regularly on “Chelsea Lately” on E! should have been a red flag. Both of her new shows feature tired plots and bad writing, with “Girls” relying on sexual references and jokes that would be at home on “Two and a Half Men.” At least Kat Dennings does her best to save the show, which despite its many flaws still has potential. But “Whitney” falls flat in all aspects, most notably with its cast of stock characters. We’ve got the bitter single friend, Roxanne (Rhea Seehorn), who drinks too early in the day and never smiles; the horny and single male friend, Mark (Dan O’Brien), who tortures viewers with his sex jokes and sees women as prizes; the hyper-sexed and overly affectionate couple, Neal and Lily (Maulik Pancholy and Zoe Lister-Jones); and Whitney’s bitter mother (Jane Kaczmarek), who still rails about Whitney’s father even though both she and he have been married multiple times since their relationship failed.
And then we have Whitney and her boyfriend, Alex (Chris D’Elia). They’re three years into their relationship, content living together without getting married. Whether they are happy, though, is hard to tell. Whitney is too busy being “eccentric” and lacking facial expressions, and Alex is too busy making half-hearted commentary about her eccentricities to notice that his girlfriend doesn’t smile. He’s the straight man here, although Whitney lacks the spark and humor necessary to pull off the slightly-neurotic, says-the-wrong-things-but-still-is-adorable persona she must be aiming for. (Zooey Deschanel, on Fox’s “New Girl,” handles this role well. And her face moves.) Conversely, Whitney plays the straight man for her crazy friends, none of whom seem nice. Who would want to hang around in this crowd? I’d be bitter and drunk at 2:30 p.m., too. Perhaps that is how they got the live studio audience to play along, although I could have sworn it was a laugh track. Alcohol may make the show more tolerable.
The beginning of the pilot has the friends attending a wedding, a theme likely to recur here as Whitney and Alex are confronted with the issue of not marrying, a fresh, bold topic in 2011. After hearing how many times Neal and Lily have sex a week, however, Whitney is worried that she and Alex are growing apart. She picks up a sexy nurse outfit for a bit of role play, and here, halfway through the episode, is the only bit that brings a few chuckles. But as an excited Alex races to the bedroom to follow Whitney — after she makes him present his insurance card and fill out forms — he trips, hits his head on the counter and ends up in the hospital with a concussion. The only funny segment is cut short. In fact, most of the segments, just as on “2 Broke Girls,” feel frantically patched together, with bad editing and awkward transitions. There’s not enough story here to present a story, just a bunch of scenes that don’t go anywhere. “Whitney” has no real theme, or an anchor bringing the characters together, such as an office or a school. This type of show can work — again, “Friends” — but the friends need to be likable, not shrill.
At the wedding, a girl who hit on Alex refers to Whitney as, essentially, “that loud girl.” This as Whitney grabs a few cupcakes to eat, not knowing she was supposed to wait for the bride and groom to get first dibs. Oh, Whitney! Alex can’t take you anywhere. If only you were actually charming — and looked like you actually ate cupcakes — we’d smile and shake our heads right along with your boyfriend. But he’s acting. We have no reason to pretend you’re fun to be around.
“Whitney” airs at 9:30/8:30C on NBC. For now.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh corgi. She also loves cupcakes.