The only joke to be found in ABC’s new sitcom, “Work It,” is on its main male characters: because they pretend to be women to land jobs, they will earn less in those jobs than they would have had they remained their male selves. That’s because the median weekly earnings of women who are full-time wage and salary workers is $669, or 81 percent of men’s $824, according to 2010 statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. Not that the gender wage gap is mentioned in the pilot, or the fact that, despite the claims of the characters that men have it worse in this economy than women, the latest DOL unemployment numbers for November have adult men at 8.3 percent and adult women at 7.8 — hardly a drastic difference. And women are 49.4 percent of the payrolled workforce.
“Work It” isn’t so much worried about “facts,” and we know this because it is being billed as a “high-concept comedy.” Created by Ted Cohen and Andrew Reich, both of whose best work appears to have been for “Friends,” the series is bizarrely alienating and dated, unfunny and insulting, uncomfortable and cliche. Paired with Tim Allen’s sitcom “Last Man Standing,” it creates an hour of TV dedicated to the proposition that men not only are not equal but indeed are put upon, belittled by the women who have demanded so many rights they have now taken more than their share. What actually is unfair is that this show, in its ridiculous attempt at commentary on the modern male, exists at all.
In terms of the gender stereotypes running amok in “Work It,” the dressing in drag bit isn’t the problem — that’s been done countless times to great effect. Rather, it’s the reason for the drag. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon’s characters donned skirts and wigs in Some Like It Hot to escape the mob; Dustin Hoffman’s difficult-to-work-with Michael Dorsey took the persona of Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie as the only way to land a specific acting role; and in “Bosom Buddies,” Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari’s men pretended to be women to secure a cheap and female-only apartment. “Work It” is far more obtuse. These men dress as women out of desperation, yes, but also bitterness.
Lee Standish (Ben Koldyke), married with a 14-year-old daughter, has been unemployed for a year, having lost his job as a top salesman for Pontiac in St. Louis, Mo. His friend, Angel Ortiz (Amaury Nolasco), was the head mechanic there. They commiserate on having no luck finding work and receiving their final unemployment checks at their favorite bar. There, his brother-in-law and fellow laid-off Pontiac worker, Brian (John Caparulo), chimes in that it isn’t the recession that is making the job search so difficult — it’s the “mancession.” “Look, women are taking over the workforce,” Brian says. “Soon, they’ll start getting rid of men. They’ll just keep a few of us around as sex slaves.” “That part doesn’t sound so bad,” Angel replies. “Not the kind of sex you like, Angel,” Brian says. “Just kissing and cuddling and ‘listening.’ ” Angel grimaces.
Even though Lee had to cancel his daughter’s cell phone plan and makes a point of hoarding sugar and ketchup packets, his wife, Connie (Beth Lacke), urges him to go to the doctor for a routine physical, neither of them realizing his insurance has lapsed. In the waiting room, before Lee is hit with a $900 bill, he overhears a female pharmaceutical sales rep bragging to a nurse about how great business is and that the company, Coreco Pharmaceuticals, is looking to hire. Not so fast, Lee. They want women, the rep says. At home, as Lee considers pawning some of Connie’s jewelry to pay the bill, he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror, on which one of Connie’s dresses is hanging. He frames his head above the neckline and holds the earrings to his ears, imagining wearing such a getup, and that’s it. That’s all it takes for him to decide to impersonate a female to interview at Coreco.
He raises a few eyebrows, but all are fooled by his act. The (female) hiring manager, Vanessa (Rochelle Aytes), commends his/her research on the company, telling him/her, “Impressive! Most of the girls who interview here think clinical trials are the things Lindsay Lohan keeps having to go to.” (An interesting dig at “typical” female candidates, who apparently are no match for this male.) “I’m not your ordinary girl,” Lee says. He lands the job. To celebrate, he offers to take Connie, who doesn’t know about the charade, to dinner — at the bar, along with Angel and Brian. She declines, upset at the prospect. “OK, I’ll just wake you up for sex later,” Lee says before going to the bar, where Brian yells to female patrons, “Sorry ladies, a man got a job! I guess you’ll have to wait a little while longer for your sex slaves. Ha ha ha ha!”
“This is what I had to do to get a job,” Lee tells Angel, pointing to his costume and encouraging his friend to take up the nylons and follow suit. Angel does. He gets a job at Coreco. Good thing they’re named Lee and Angel, not Leonard and Albert. That’d be hard to explain! Together, they explore the ways of their female co-workers, adopting high-pitched voices and trying to keep the Ace bandages wrapped around their crotches from coming loose when dancing with the gals at the club. Girl talk with one of his co-workers, Kristin (Kirstin Eggers), clues Lee in on how he hasn’t always considered Connie’s needs during the trying time of his unemployment. Perhaps if Lee spent as much time trying to communicate with his wife as he does trying to dress like her — or, I don’t know, being open to having female friends — he might not be so dumbfounded when he upsets her and only realize his mistakes by accident. But that kind of introspection won’t do for a sitcom like “Work It,” where women eat salad and make bitchy comments about each other’s purses and men eat giant hoagies and talk about cars. Different planets, etc.
At the doctor’s office, when Lee asks the sales rep Kelly (Kate Reinders) why Coreco only wanted “girls,” her reply was to the point: “Well, we’ve had some guys, but the doctors seem to want to nail them less.” But according to Vanessa, the “girls” they bring in don’t know much about the trade, not like Lee does. So this is the problem the creators are going with — pretty young things are stealing the jobs hard-working family men desperately need? This is why the economy is in shambles? Even if Lee and Angel eventually change their tune, having, according to the show’s press materials, “learn(ed) that to be a better man may mean having to be a better woman,” the damage already will have been done. You can’t build a touching buddy cross-dressing comedy on such an ugly premise. And those responsible for “Work It” have no one to blame but themselves.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama.