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March 3, 2015

Five Easy Ways '2 Broke Girls' Could Improve Itself (Step 1: Drop the Racist Character)

by Maureen Ryan, posted Nov 1st 2011 2:45PM
The biggest mystery of the fall season doesn't involve a detective or dead body; the suspects are, in this case, '2 Broke Girls.' Why doesn't the CBS sitcom do a much faster and more efficient job of fixing what's wrong with it? These problems are eminently fixable and they're getting in the way of what's working about the show.

'2 Broke Girls,' you may recall, was one of the best-reviewed pilots of the season, but since then, it's often found itself mired in a morass of cringe-inducing supporting characters, brain-numbing predictability and jokes that feel as though they were exhumed from dead sitcoms of the '80s. What gives? The show is doing well (it got a full-season order from CBS), but I can't escape the feeling that it'd be doing even better if it ditched its more groan-worthy elements.

Given the magical ability to fix '2 Broke Girls,' here's what I'd change right away:

1. Dump the racist caricature.

'2 Broke' depicts a couple of young waitresses living in the trendy and multi-ethnic neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. So why does their boss, Han Lee (Matthew Moy), feel as though he was imported from an unenlightened sitcom from decades ago? Han is not only desexualized, childlike, naive and dressed in dorky clothing, he speaks with a thick accent that emphasizes his misuse of English. He's an appalling laundry list of almost every thoughtless Asian-American stereotype Hollywood has ever inflicted on our culture. CBS is doing its entire primetime lineup a disservice by including such a poorly thought out, offensive character in one of its most hyped new shows.

This is such an easy fix to make, and it needs to be made as soon as possible. Han is an unsalvagable character and should be eliminated as soon as possible, but maybe the diner that employs waitresses Max (Kat Dennings) and Caroline (Beth Behrs) could get a new owner or manager -- perhaps a character who has his or her own striving backstory. The show focuses so much on savaging the hipsters that come into the diner that it forgets that Max and Caroline aren't the only underdogs in the neighborhood trying to better themselves. All in all, the supporting characters on the show, which include the tiresome sleazeball cook and the wise African-American cashier, need to add more to the comedic potential of the girls' workplace -- or at least stop detracting from it.

2. If the show is going to go smutty, it should be funny about it.

I don't know about you, but I sure am sick of the word "vagina," which has been all over the airwaves this fall. In case comedy writers were unsure of this fact, the word is not really inherently funny in and of itself (at least it isn't anymore). Nor does it benefit from being repeated more than a dozen times, as it was on Monday's episode of '2 Broke.' Maybe the writers thought we might forget that this is a show about female characters and were supplying us with helpful reminders? Sigh.

Honestly, the constant use of the V-word is just one sign of '2 Broke's' over-reliance on sex humor that just isn't amusing. I'm very much in favor of inventively salacious jokes, but the lewd humor on '2 Broke' tends to involve schticky, obvious punchlines and alarmingly unfunny wordplay (Max to a cheap customer on a date: "Looks like this little tip just lost you the chance to give her your little tip!" A sleep-deprived Caroline: "I need a good nine hours" and Max's comeback: "You need a good nine inches." Har har har!). It's just like the Algonquin roundtable, if it wasn't funny and consisted entirely of sixth graders.

But the worst purveyor of the show's moronic sex jokes is Oleg, the sleazy cook who only exists to dispense leering come-ons. Here's a typical Oleg line: "You know what they say -- once you go Ukraine, you scream with sex pain." Yes, that line was uttered on American television. No, I can't make you un-know that. Did that line make anyone scream with laughter? Didn't think so, and it's lame material like that makes the decent stuff in this show seem shoddier and more tired than it is just through sheer proximity.

So far Earl the Cashier (Garrett Morris) has been spared the worst of this pathetic material, but almost every other character has to say these non-zingers regularly. The sooner the '2 Broke' writers step up their game, with the sex jokes and everything else, the more likely the show is to become a true crossover hit. Rejects from the 'Two and a Half Men' writers' room just aren't going to cut it if '2 Broke' really wants to break through and establish its own identity. There are signs that the writers realize this (recent episodes have shown signs of promise), but so far consistency is not '2 Broke's' chief virtue.

3. Give both characters, especially Max, a greater variety of things to do and say.

If I'm being hard on '2 Broke,' it's because the comedy still shows flashes of its potential when it gets out of its own way, and one of the quickest routes to improvement involves giving the two leads material tailored to their strengths.

The Max-Caroline relationship works best when the cynical Max is not standing still and delivering the two kinds of lines she tends to be given -- putdowns of the hapless Caroline and one-liners about her difficult life. It's not that those arenas aren't fair game for the character and the show (especially in the era of Occupy Wall Street, as Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out), but there's a danger of making Max seem too mean or too predictable, and the setup-punchline rhythm is only worth putting up with if the punchlines deliver.

One of the problems is that Kat Dennings' line readings can start to seem very same-y after a while, but when she's given another color to work with -- a playful enjoyment of Caroline's rich-girl closet or a well-concealed crush on a local bartender -- her performance becomes much richer and more enjoyable. Behrs (who has a gift for physical comedy and has done yeoman's work as the show's likable innocent) needs to get more chances to shine and Max needs to act like a normal human being more often for the friendship to have even mildly believable emotional stakes.

Acerbic sideswipes will always be part of the show's DNA, but like the cupcakes Max makes, the show should be a little bit sweet, and the good news is, Behrs and Dennings have the ability to play those kinds of moments without making them cloying.

4. Give us more progress on the cupcake front.

As I said, Max and Caroline don't always have to get along -- clearly Caroline's blithe rich-girl assumptions and Max's underdog toughness will always be a source of comedy -- but when they're sharing a goal or just a moment of levity, the show recalls the promise of its sprightly pilot. I'm sure I can't be the only one who greatly enjoyed the impromptu dance they did in Caroline's palatial closet a few weeks ago, and I enjoy seeing how Max and Caroline's lives change as they build their cupcake business.

Of course, their evolution as friends and individuals will no doubt be glacial (this is a multi-camera sitcom on CBS, after all), but for me, the best part of the show is watching these two learn from each other: Caroline could use more of Max's pragmatism and street smarts, and Max is learning to let her inner optimist live a little, thanks to Caroline's irrepressible influence.

The cupcake business is a good vehicle for those kinds of stories, which is why I'm hoping their savings start to grow a little more quickly. Watching those two try to run a bakery could be pretty fun (and it would take care of the various supporting-character problems).

5. Either lose the horse or explain why he's still around.

The fact that the girls live their lives under the watchful gaze of Caroline's horse, Chestnut, was a mildly funny gag for a while, but his ongoing presence invites some reasonable questions: Horses aren't cheap to keep, so who's paying for his feed and other needs? We've seen Max walk the poor horse around the neighborhood, but otherwise does Chestnut just stand around all day in their back yard? If so, I feel sorry for him. And finally, why don't the girls sell the animal to make the money they need for their cupcake business? If they don't, then these broke girls need to explain how they're caring for the expensive animal with their low wages. It's not a huge glitch, but viewers are more likely to get deeply invested in a show when its characters and premises make a modicum of sense.

Enacting all the changes above wouldn't turn '2 Broke Girls' into a cutting-edge cable comedy, not by a long shot. No matter what, it's still going to be a very traditional buddy comedy in which a cynical character instructs a ditzy character on the ways of the world, and the naive character imparts the idea that being optimistic isn't such a terrible thing. CBS is a very mainstream network that has had a lot of success with comedies that are, for the most part, running along familiar lines and walking on well-trodden paths. But there's a difference between working safely within traditional formats and pandering to the lowest common denominator. '2 Broke' simply doesn't need to do the latter to keep an audience -- in fact, it may be scaring a bigger one away.

Even within individual episodes, '2 Broke' can't seem to decide what it wants to do -- go broad in dumb ways or go mainstream in smart ways. I hope it decides on the latter approach, or, failing that, just stops tripping itself up.

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