Wednesday, January 18, 2012
"2 BROKE GIRLS": OUTDATED STEREOTYPES OR CLASSY/DIRTY GOOD-TIME FUN?: ANOTHER LOOK AT THE SHOW IN THE SHADOWS OF MICHAEL PATRICK KING'S TCA PANEL DEBACLE.
Within the last few months, the show "2 Broke Girls", has come under scrutiny by critics for having stereotypical and racist humor. This all culminated a few days ago, when at a Television Critics Association (TCA) panel, co-creator and showrunner Michael Patrick King, was confronted on the issue, and didn't do the greatest job in defending the show, or for that matter himself. None of the secondhand reports paint him nicely. I've criticized him before myself, during a blog where I requested that "Sex and the City," the show he's most famous for, die, and I made mention that I seriously questioned whether or not even he realized some of the key parts of that series that made it so good.
Basically, the argument King was making was that the show isn't stereotypical, it's multi-national, with a multi-ethnic cast, plus, part of the humor is that the character are stereotypes, like the rich blonde and the dirty brunette, and how those stereotypes gets undermined throughout the show. The critics, many of them felt that much of the humor comes from making light of these stereotypes, in a negative way. I'll be honest, the controversy, and much of the criticism actually caught me offguard. I've watched every episode of the show, and consider it quite funny. In fact, I talked about the show in a previous "Good on TV?" blog entry, which is by far the most popular blog I've posted so far in fact, where I mentioned that it was easily the best new show TV this year. I regret those words a little, because I think "Up All Night," has shown to be quite funny, but I looked at "2 Broke Girls" as a new-age "Laverne & Shirley," with loads of room for not only humor, but strong longterm plotlines and character development. I had seen some slight mentions that the show has stereotypical comedy, but I didn't think much of it at the time, other than it being useless ramblings from a TV critic or two. The audience doesn't seem to notice. It's the highest-rated new comedy on TV this year, and it just won the People's Choice Award for Best New Comedy.
I'm tempted to defend King blindly here honestly, because it is a good show, and yes, there's some merit to the notion that 40 years after "All in the Family," that we have to explain to people the subtle differences between making fun of somebody based on preconcieved stereotypes, and how to use those preconceived stereotypes to undermine the more assuming characters (and members of the audience). But, that's a tired argument in of itself. I'm gonna take a different approach. I've seen every episode so far, so I'm gonna look at the show, a little more thoughtfully, and let's see if the TCA critics' talking points hold any water.
Let's start with the main characters. King makes a very good point that both begin as stereotypes, but they are also the only two characters that are in any way fleshed out. Yes, they start as stereotypes, but most characters do, especially in sitcoms, but as most characters in good shows do, we find out more about them, and they continually evolve. To this end, King has stayed true. The girls have a distinctive situation, as well as a long-term goal, to start a bakery, (albeit granted, that is sitcomish, but hardly as improbably as one may believe) They have little money, in fact they count it at the end of each episode, which does involve some awkward exposition dialogue, but that's okay. What is troubling about Max and Caroline, is that this is a slight touch of artificiality in their personalities. Superficiality to some extent. For both characters. Caroline's is explained in her backstory, she's a trust-fund princess, who's father was worse Bernie Madoff, so she's stuck in a new world that she's only seen from a distance until now. Max, on the other hand, has a standoff-ishness demeanor which comes out often in snarky remarks. (That he she often laughs at her own jokes is an intriguing character choice) Sometimes these remarks are humorous remarks based on stereotypes. There was one joke I remember Max made about a Mormon that seemed odd and out-of-place I recall thinking. It was quick-witted joke, but not one of the character's funniest. (In case your curious, I'm purposefully refraining from mentioning the actors' names in this paper. I'm fully aware that Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs are playing characters, but I'm trying to make an analyse of their characters as oppose to performances) It's through this standoff-ishness of Max's personality that she sees the world. She's a cynic, with the most pessimistic of points of view, add that to her reluctance to becomes attached to anyone or anything, and you get a character, who's mostly insular, and probably does see the world through stereotypes. She will rarely bother to get to people, so she categorizes them through the few obligatory occurrances where she is requiring contact with them.
This also expalins why the majority of the show's supporting characters remain mostly unexplored. This is also the source of the majority of the critic complaints about the show, and where Michael Patrick King, appeared to be most out-of-touch when discussing the show at the panel. I don't wish to judge him on that appearance, however. For one thing, I wasn't there, although most of the reports I've read, and there's lot of them online, basically have the same account. King, was confronted on the issue, discussed that he himself is gay, and to a certain extent believed that the supporting characters, the short Korean diner-owner, Han, the tall Ukraine sex-obsessed Oleg, and the old ex-jazz musician Black host, Earl, would eventually develop into three-dimensional characters, but he defended the show's comedy. He used onomatopoetic terms describing the show like "classy/dirty" to describe to the tone of the show, and said that the humor that the critics refer to as stereotypical, King described as "ballsy", although he also mentioned the show had heart as well
I think that King is not the best person to be using such things as humor, race, religion, and other such stereotypes for humor, but I don't completely disagree with him either. There is a lot of boundary-pushing sexual innuendo jokes and on other material that up 'til now, we really haven't seen on basic television. There's a lot of jokes at how Max and Caroline's childhood so drastically differed from each other, like the fact that Max doesn't know who her father is. Also, in regards to the supporting characters remaining so underwritten, well it's a crappy job, and neither character like to hang out at that diner all day, why would they get to know they're boss or co-workers more intimately than they need to? I think that's a reasonable question, how well does everybody know their own co-workers, and rarely is that a focus or subject of one's homelife. And another point, let's take the Oleg character, he's from the Ukraine, he's a broad-shoulder, unkept, apparently he smells, and spends his days sexually harassing the waitresses. Here's my question, do any other those aspects of the character change if he was an American? I could describe certain people that I've come across that look and act like that, and some of them have New Jersey accents. Some of live down the block from me in fact. I personally thing Han wouldn't change much either if we did the same recasting to him. Out-of-touch geeky short diner-owner trying to fit in and run a business, he could basically be the opposite character of Danny DeVito's Louis De Palma on "Taxi". (I think a young DeVito, could have played that part well btw.) I don't the think this question works on Earl's character however, he is somewhat stereotype. First of all, he already is an American. African-American, aging jazz musician, been done before, and frankly, Earl's character could easily be the one that gets dropped from the show the easiest. (Although personally, that's the supporting character I prefer the best, partly 'cause he's played by SNL alum Garrett Morris, which brings a smile to me)
If anything comes from this TCA panel, I hope it makes Michael Patrick King, take a closer look at his show's humor, and see if there is room for improvement, and more importantly take a closer look at himself, because his reaction to these questions really indicate that he is somewhat unaware of how certain people are interpreting certain aspects of the show. That said, there's a thin line here. He's established a world that these characters survive in, and he's shown how they survive in it. One of those ways is by characterizing people they run into as convenient stereotypical shorthand cliches. I don't want him to abandon this perspective completely. It's a realistic point of view for these characters, and it's got lots of genuine funny material that can come out of it, including ways of undermining this perspective, completely. I also don't think PCing the show so much that the genuine Max and Caroline dynamic gets pushed aside works either. I don't envy his job right now. He's had critical acclaim with "Sex and the City," and "The Comeback," before, (two shows where the supporting characters were very multi-dimensional) and just as he's finally getting popular acclaim, he gets knocked down for the ways in which he achieves it. The strange thing is, all I ever really ask of a show is that it's good, and if its a sitcom, that it's funny. He's got those two things, already. Now, he's gotta improve on that. You should thank those critics Mr. King. If nothing else, they've just made sure that you're not gonna coast through this show without them letting you hear about it.