The Problem With Whitney Isn’t Its Star, It’s The Title

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NBC star Whitney Cummings has been a lightning rod for negative attention this TV season. She’s got two shows in prime time, both of which are part of the reason this was supposed to “the season of funny women ruling prime time.” There’s reason to believe that she could have been our next funny feminist icon. The problem is that a lot of women don’t like her. Or her shows.

Just yesterday, Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker called her “this year’s sexy-girl hate magnet.”

I never thought I’d be a Whitney apologist, but I think some of the vitriol aimed at Whitney Cummings’ eponymous show is misplaced tall poppy syndrome.

Not since Cougar Town has a show been more poorly titled. Watching Whitney, I could swear it is a show about a couple trying to figure out how to succeed in a relationship after rejecting the rules that say they need to be married and making babies if they’re serious about each other. But then everywhere I look in the PR materials and show credits, I see Whitney Cummings’ face. I assume this is supposed to make audiences like her. But the opposite happened.

Frankly, Whitney’s brand of female-based relationship humor is not strong enough, or clear enough in its attacks, to stand on its own as a counter to the typical patriarchal sitcom dynamic. Her show hits on some interesting relationship dynamics and shifts in popular culture. It has the makings of a decent ensemble comedy, but that’s not how NBC played this hand.

The reason so many fat-husband-annoyed-by-his-pretty-wife sitcoms exist is because there are sadly a lot of people in America who identify with that dynamic. There are many fewer women who are in a committed relationship but resisting marriage. And more importantly, they’re less likely to self-identify as a trope.

By putting Whitney Cummings out there as the star and embodiment of her show, the network dangled her as a straw man to be torched by sympathizers and foes alike.

Here’s the thing. There are good things happening in Whitney. But a genius take down of the standard family sitcom dynamic it is not.

Like the name Cougar Town, the show Whitney (and its accompanying ad campaign) inspired audiences to reject the show before watching. Actually, the show is much less terrible than its horrible ads would suggest.

But on Whitney, not only is “Whitney” my least favorite character on the show, I resent how the narrative expects me to sympathize with her. As a female, I feel pandered to when presented with an image like this:

Basically, Whitney Cummings is no Roseanne Barr. Roseanne had enough of a new perspective on suburban family life to work as a show. Whitney is a show about a bunch of urban quasi-hipsters' daily lives.

But there are still things to appreciate. I like the female led cast, and its attempt at a nuanced approach to the modern urban relationship. Yes, there are more than a few problems with the script and the laugh track and the deflated feminism it’s trying to convey with Whitney’s disdain for the institution of marriage. But most importantly, I think the show does its creator and star a disservice by putting her name in lights. It simultaneously conflates Whitney Cummings with her alterego and presents her as this thing for the audience to love. Which made the opposite happen.

A similar thing happened to Zooey Deschanel on The New Girl, but this isn’t specific to female leads. There are multiple male leads that are hatable. I’d be hard pressed to find someone I know who loved Ray Romano in Everybody Loves Raymond. And lets just take it as a given that Ted Mosbey is the least likable character on How I Met Your Mother. That show, by the way, is the most successful Friends replacement that television has been able to create. In its endless series of increasingly lackluster Friends borg ripoffs, network TV finally hit on an interesting ensemble while trying to piece together the meet-cute story of two kids’ parents.

But How I Met Your Mother is really a story of a growing bromance with some suitably dude-friendly females thrown into the mix. Meanwhile, Whitney actually has an interesting female friends and relationship dynamic at play. I like the strangely agressive hot drunkard played by Rhea Seehorn. And if Zoe Lister Jones can figure out how to speak as though she’s on the same show as everyone else in the cast, I think I’d like her as well.

Comparing the cast of Whitney to Kat Dennings in Two Broke Girls is unfair. Dennings is a movie star moonlighting on TV and she has more skill than most when it comes to owning dialogue. Even with a weak script filled with racial stereotypes (and a horse as a backyard pet!), she makes her dialogue sparkle. (If Whitney Cummings is responsible for that horse, then I'm ready to be pissed at her.)

If anything, I think this season of female led comedies has shown that women have just as much trouble writing believable roles for the opposite sex as men do. For instance, the male characters on The New Girl are embarrassing.

Meanwhile, I actually actively enjoy watching Chris D'Elia as Whitney’s boyfriend Alex. He rolls around with puppies, he enjoys dating an actively crazy woman, and he's one of the most likable beta male I can think of on TV right now. Altogether, I think this group could hit its stride as an ensemble comedy of a group of friends living in whatever city that living room is supposed to be in.

I'm not saying the show doesn't need some work. But if they could make some good progress by starting with the name.