What Would Make “Whitney” Worth Watching?

I’m not familiar with Whitney Cummings’ stand-up, so I watched the pilot of her eponymous sitcom with an open mind. In fact, after reading a New York Times interview in which she was asked if she’d slept her way to the top, I was willing it to be fantastic.

Turns out, my willing skills are out of whack.

It’s not that I hated “Whitney.” I even liked a few things about it: the use of “She Said” by Plan B in the opening scene, that Whitney wanted to wear a hoodie to a wedding and that she unselfconsciously stuffed her face with cupcakes at the reception.

The problem is, very little about the show felt fresh. It started with Whitney in front of the mirror, curling her eyelashes, her mouth wide open. The idea that women sometimes open their mouths while doing their eye-makeup wasn’t a new observation 20 years ago. Whitney and her live-in boyfriend Alex then get into an all-out, deodorant-spraying fight for mirror space, setting up the thesis of the show: that men and women are constantly in battle (another character later announces that dating is “a warzone”). But we learned nothing about these specific characters except that they’re a couple and they enjoy good hygiene, and it seemed like a waste of 40 seconds.

At the wedding, we were introduced to Whitney and Alex’s friends, but not given any reason to like this assortment of primarily white, exclusively heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender characters straight from sitcom central casting. There was a Joey Tribbiani/Barney Stinson sexist charmer archetype who came across as pure sleaze, a couple still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship (they kissed a lot; he carried her purse) and an opinionated woman who drew the ire of one of the kissers by wearing pants to the wedding. (The show is big on gender essentialism, the most egregious example of which was the suggestion that Alex “had sex” with an unconscious Whitney on their last anniversary–i.e., raped her, though the show didn’t see it that way.)

In conversation with these cardboard cut-outs, Whitney discovers she and Alex are having sex less often than Cosmo claims they should be. So, (because a couple’s sex life is always the woman’s responsibility), she decides to spice things up. Although this storyline has been done many times before and I preferred “Mad About You”’s take on it, I must give “Whitney” props for a scene that showed the promise of a stronger show. Her insistence that Alex fill out reams of insurance information while she was dressed as a sexy nurse made me laugh, and I saw the show’s individuality for the first time.

In fact, it made me wonder if this was the type of story Cummings wanted to tell, and the network was trying to push her into a more conventional style. While she’s clearly stereotypically pretty, more appealing is her oddball quality. If the show played on this, ditched the laugh track and dared to be a little darker, as well as drawing from Cummings’ real-life experiences rather than the work of a hundred sitcom writers before her, it could actually be worth watching. As it stands, it isn’t.

Poster from NBC’s “Whitney”

Comments

  1. What I immediately don’t understand is why she’s touching her crotch in the promo photo?

    • I hadn’t even noticed that! I wonder if that and the fact that she’s in front of him suggests she’s the “aggressor”? Is she taking on the traditionally male role, complete with morning breath? Is she going to have to have sex with herself ‘cos he’s not interested? (He did say in the pilot, “YOU can ‘tap that’ anytime you want.”) Other ideas welcome ;)

  2. wow, you hit it right on. exactly how i was feeling about this show. while going back and forth between this and jersey shore. :)

  3. Actually, I watched her stand up once and she confused me. A lot of her show was pretty feminist, in my mind. She pokes holes in a lot of preconceived notions of ‘how women are’ and I get the feeling the way she overly makes herself up is a dig at the ridiculousness of make up etc.

    That said, sometimes I feel like she’s a little ambiguous, like she’s dancing along the line of reinforcing the stereotypes and making fun of them. As a separate note, the captions on the advertising campaigns are appalling.

    • “sometimes I feel like she’s a little ambiguous, like she’s dancing along the line of reinforcing the stereotypes and making fun of them.”

      Yes! That expresses how I feel too. And I wonder if she’s trying to toe some studio line or thinks it will put people off if she’s a bit more overtly feminist. But I think she’d find a whole new audience. The ads are terrible and I don’t understand how they relate to the show, but I guess the trouble is the show doesn’t really know what it is yet. In that NYT interview, Whitney talks about when she was poor and struggling and locked her purse in her car and had no money to call AAA. I wish we were seeing more stories inspired by her life.

  4. I’m with you. I saw Whitney Cummings on Chelsea Lately a few times and always liked her.

    The one redeeming feature, for me, about the mirror seen was Whitney shaving her ‘mustache” after her bf shaves his. Plus the grooming was portrayed as laborious and tedious, which of course it is.

    Cardboard friends seem to be parts of Whitney’s own sense of fragmented self, which she then negotiates. Sexist asshole is just pure schlock.

    Mainstream identities are maddening. Hope it gets better!

    • Oh, yes! The mustache thing was interesting: I wondered if that was an attempt to incorporate some destimatizing humor about the less glamorous aspects of grooming, although of course she had no visible facial hair and then told her boyfriend she’d had laser hair removal all over “for you”. It’s like she pushed the envelope then grabbed it back. And yes, good point about the grooming being portrayed as tedious. I’m still surprised that “OK, you’re an idiot” was how they chose to open the show, though. I was under the impression that each scene of a comedy should aim for at least one laugh… Anyway, it got good numbers, so I guess it will be around for a while, hopefully improving vastly.

  5. Just wanted to drop in and say thanks for acknowledging once again the fact that Whitney’s boyfriend raped her. It is exactly what I needed to see after reading some particularly awful comments on a non-safe feminist blog yesterday that had me tearful with anger. Thanks for being awesome, Ms. and Diane, and for not hiding or defending rape, fictional or not.

    • Oh, thank you Jess. To be honest, at first I wasn’t sure if I was jumping to conclusions — initially, I wondered if they were saying she was just a little woozy (but able to consent) or something — but the whole “You still had sex with me”/”Well, it was our anniversary” exchange made it clear that he thought “sex” (rape) was his right. It’s clearly circumstances like that where real women are raped and not taken seriously, so it’s really important people understand just how unfunny it was.

  6. I kind of like the dynamic between Whitney and her boyfriend when they are just hanging out or whatever(I too really laughed at the paperwork bit)

    They seem like a couple I could know, but that doesn’t seem enough for the network, that seems to want them embroiled in these crazy competitions and whatnot.

  7. I really hate it when the “sexy nurse” character is brought into play. My mother is a nurse, I’m in training to be a nurse, and that kind of characterization only serves to further belittle a profession that is already marginalized in the medical community. Nurses get treated like maids, like servants, like idiots, especially by doctors and demanding patients. What people don’t understand is that nurses are health care professionals who have worked damn hard to get their educations and careers and we deserve the same respect and admiration that doctors tend to automatically get. It really doesn’t help the cause to have some “comedian” on TV dress up in a uniform and call herself a nurse while acting like an idiot.

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