“Whitney”: There’s a decent show in there somewhere

The second season premiere repeats some of the show's worst mistakes after righting its course last year

Topics: Television, TV, Whitney Cummings, whitney,

"Whitney": There's a decent show in there somewhereWhitney Cummings and Chris D'Elia in "Whitney"

Whitney Cummings’ much-maligned sitcom “Whitney” returned for its second season last night, with big promises that this year would be different. The series, about a tough, brassy woman named Whitney and her long-term live-in boyfriend, Alex, and their four unbearable friends, took a lot of guff last fall for being a throwback. Cummings and the show’s creators tended to see that as a critique of the series format, which is multi-camera, and not its content, which was initially a barely updated “Honeymooners”-style war of the sexes.

Cummings & Co. got fixated on criticism of the series’ “laugh track,” explaining over and over again that the show was really taped in front of a live studio audience. It’s true that multi-camera and studio audiences are out of style — and at odds with the other Thursday night comedies “Whitney” was originally, jarringly paired with —  but the format was never really what was problematic about the show. If the jokes are funny, a laugh track is no big thing. It’s when the laugh track — or live studio audience — guffaw and chuckle and chortle at the unfunny that things feel phony. Last season, especially at the beginning, there was a lot of forced laughter.

Over the course of last year, “Whitney” did improve dramatically. Early story lines that pitted Whitney and Alex against each other were replaced by stories where they worked together. It became possible to see why they liked each other, and to see that bickering and bantering was part of their attraction. As the season went on, when Whitney and Alex would talk and tease, they would also laugh and giggle at each other’s lines and retorts, laughs and giggles that most other sitcoms edit out, but shouldn’t.

The second season has, rightfully then, been retooled to make Whitney and Alex by far the most likable part of “Whitney,” the show’s focus. Cummings has described the new season as going for a “Mad About You” vibe. The supporting cast has been reduced from four to three (but, sadly, not from four to zero) to give Whitney and Alex more screen time.

Unfortunately, all of these changes didn’t seem to have much impact on last night’s season premiere, which picked up the morning after Alex had gotten a tattoo saying “I do” and the pair decided to think of themselves as married. Soon after, Whitney, who never, ever cries, cried when her mother refused to take Whitney’s “marriage” seriously. While comforting Whitney, Alex got an erection, which Whitney found disgusting and made her feel unsafe. She wondered if it meant Alex was attracted to her when she’s weak, and then stormed out.

In other words, the first episode of the new season repeats some of the worst aspects of last season: Whitney losing her temper and behaving like a baby, and Alex forcing her to work it through to learn to trust him, a seemingly “risque” topic — tear boners! — that “Two and a Half Men” has probably explored multiple times. Which raises an interesting idea — is Alex attracted to Whitney when she’s vulnerable? — only to bat it away for crasser, more trivial fights. I really do think there is a decent sitcom hiding inside of “Whitney,” but I haven’t seen it yet.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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