When you see a bunch of TV shows premiering at the same time that all seem a lot alike, here’s the basic breakdown of how a theme or an idea becomes a trend:
Let’s say that 24 months ago, thousands of unemployed writers were independently watching CNN and they saw a segment on something a glib economist was calling a “mancession,” a set of indicators suggesting that in our down economy, men were losing jobs at the statistical expense of women. Hundreds of those writers responded speciously, “Ha. After all of those years of women complaining that men were getting better jobs and getting paid better, the shoe is finally on the other foot. There’s a script in that.” A couple dozen actually sat down and wrote their scripts and then 15 months ago, maybe a dozen of them sold to networks. Maybe six or seven of them went to pilot in the spring of 2011. And ABC, eager to pounce all over that possible zeitgeist, picked up three different shows about the plight of the white male, scheduling two — “Last Man Standing” and “Man Up” for a fall comedy block — and saving the most thematically explicit, “Work It,” for a threatening midseason slot.
“Last Man Standing” began course-correcting almost immediately and it has mostly become an innocuous sitcom about an old-fashioned man with old-fashioned values living in a house surrounded by women. Tim Allen’s character occasionally laments the state of contemporary masculinity, but he’s just the latest iteration of that beloved sitcom trope: The well-meaning, but in-over-his-head dad. I’ve kept watching “Last Man Standing” because it makes me chuckle once or twice a week and because my DVR isn’t over-taxed on Tuesdays.
“Man Up” never returned to the over-articulated thematics of its pilot and it eventually began to just illustrate the ordinary lives of a few ordinary men and if they happened to be struggling with their masculine identities, that was part of the background of the story. The premise soft-pedaling didn’t particularly matter, since “Man Up” never was able to hold onto its lead-in audience and the freshman comedy has ceased to exist on ABC’s schedule.
Whether it ultimately works or ultimately doesn’t work, if what birthed your show is a trend of questionable veracity, it really, really helps to have a premise that allows you room to backpedal.
“Work It,” which inexplicably sees the light of day on Tuesday (January 3) night, has no room to backpedal. It’s the story of two men who dress up as women because women have stolen all of the jobs from men and there really isn’t much that the writers are going to be able to do to change that. So “Work It” is stuck with a genuinely stupid, somewhat offensive and entirely factually fantastical premise, which is a bad thing, but not nearly as bad as the execution, which is uninspired and amateurish to an impressive extreme.
Like the mancession itself, I’d expect “Work It” to be a statistical blip, living on only in TV critic punchlines and as somewhat awkward conversation starters with the show’s not-untalented cast.
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Created by Andrew Reich and Ted Cohen, “Work It” is the story of Lee (Ben Koldyke) and Angel (Amaury Nolasco), two former Pontiac employees who have spent a year out of work because their skills — Lee is a salesman, while Angel is a mechanic — are no longer necessary in the current economy.
And why is that?
Their obnoxious friend Brian (John Caparulo) helpfully explains, “This isn’t just a recession we’re in. This is a mancession. Women are taking over the work force. Soon, they’ll start getting rid of men and just keep a few of us around as sex slaves.”
Anyway, Lee’s at the doctor — his health insurance has run out — and he hears that while there are no jobs in the entire universe for men, pharmaceutical sales is a growth industry for hot women. A dress hanging in his wife’s closet gives Lee a brilliant idea and he does what any reasonable man would do under the circumstance: He kinda figures out how to do makeup, how to wear a wig and how to adjust his man-bulge and suddenly he’s employable! Because for women, jobs are everywhere! They’re falling from the sky, available to anybody willing to tuck their penis. And in no time, he’s also found a pharma sales job for Angel, who’s even more ridiculous in drag, because as a Puerto Rican, he can’t stop shaking his butt. The latter observation is from the pilot, don’t blame me. You also can’t blame me for the line in which Angel explains that he’ll be good at selling drugs because he’s Puerto Rican. Hi-larious.
There is a piece of the “Work It” backdrop that is factually accurate and that reflects something we really don’t see on TV very often. Unemployment in this country really *is* high and more people are unemployed than the statistics show, because some skilled laborers have been without jobs for so long that they aren’t even on the rolls anymore. The idea of trying to build a comedy around that backdrop, of showing how a father, a wife and a daughter stay close in a time of financial uncertainty that has them cutting corners and canceling cell plans and whatnot? Surely that’s a tremendously relatable premise for millions of Americans. And in that particular show, maybe one episode could have had our main character going to a job interview in drag and then realizing what a dumb idea it was and then moving on. Or maybe not.
But “Work It” is trapped in a cross-dressing prison by a set of statistics that haven’t been true for a couple years now. Yes, there was a brief moment at which the recession was impacting men more than women, but we’ve had months of job figures that argue that America has returned to its professional status quo and that, once again, it’s a lot better to be a man in the job market than to be a woman and that’s leaving aside professional advancement, compensation and glass ceiling issues that never really changed even when the mancession was in full temporary swing.
That puts the heroes of “Work It” in a really tough place: It’s easy to be sympathetic to people experiencing joblessness in 2012, since that’s based in reality. It’s hard to be sympathetic of characters who are experiencing joblessness in a fictional 2012 — St. Louis in 2012 looks a lot like an NBC sitcom from 1983 — that tries to pretend that we’ve had an upside-down hegemonic shift that’s the stuff of pure myth.
So when Brian — easily the least likable supporting character of the season — says, “When the women take over, they’ll make pride illegal. That and eating on the toilet,” he doesn’t sound deluded or jovially boorish. He sounds hateful and there’s a pretty easy argument to be made that the pilot of “Work It” plays as anti-female propaganda.
The magical workforce that’s still hiring, the pharmaceutical industry, is largely populated by bubble-brained women who talk only about clothes, bar hookups and low-calorie lunches. These women, the best and brightest of the workforce, acknowledge that the key to their hiring is that the doctors they pitch to want to sleep with them. This is what Lee and Angel, with all of their skills and training, have been pushed aside for.
Of the only strong, capable woman we’re introduced to, Rebecca Mader’s Grace is presented as an acid-tongued ice queen, whole Rochelle Aytes’ Vanessa is easily duped and can’t handle a malfunctioning car. I felt sorry for Mader and Aytes, who were both recurring on bubble shows last spring doubtlessly just wanted to work during pilot season and never anticipated that this one-week pilot gig would turn into a regular job, preventing them from landing jobs elsewhere.
And when two women join the team with a deep voices, linebacker shoulders and the cheapest available wigs, they’re all too dumb or self-obsessed to raise an eyebrow.
[There’s a different version of “Work It” that could draw subversive points from proving that even in an alleged mancession, underqualified men in bad drag still find it easier to get jobs than women. “Work It” is not a show capable of making those points.]
And you know that “Work It” is heading in the “To become a better man, he had to become a woman” thematic direction. And what does Lee learn in the pilot? Women love purses and being asked about their feelings! “Work It” is all about men stealing back their jobs and placating the women around them, who are too blind, superficial or easily coddled to be worthy adversaries. See? Men won’t have to become sex slaves after all!
Yes, “Work It” is an icky show and I felt uncomfortable with nearly every line of dialogue out of the mouthes of nearly every character, but I return again to the point that having bad ideas is one thing, but having bad execution is worse.
Koldyke, in particular, has no qualms about being pushed to the comedic extreme, but the “Work It” pilot is generally content to just let Lee’s ridiculousness as a woman be the punchline without augmentation. Nolasco’s Angel gets to add flourishes, but they’re entirely built around racial caricature, so I’ll leave it for you to decide if you feel like laughing. The casting of two actors who aren’t capable of passing as women on any level is designed only to capitalize on the immediate, low-effort laughs of “Aren’t they silly as women!” but they’re both so ludicrous that the long-term potential for anything resembling organic comedy is minimal. There’s no chance that anybody accepting these two as women will ever look anything other than foolish, so the deck has been stacked in the most complacent way possible.
It’s all lazy, flat farce and it seems fair to expect a good deal more from pilot director Beth McCarthy-Miller, a long-time veteran of “30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live.” Or maybe it isn’t fair to expect McCarthy-Miller, more accustomed to single-camera offerings, to be able to overcome the script or to be able to work around and within a series of hastily constructed sets that make every shot an eyesore.
The American economy isn’t in such a terrific place right now and this fall has actually included somewhat more acknowledgment of economic stratification than we usually see in a medium that thrives on middle class and upper middle class professions like doctors and lawyers. But there’s still a disconnect that remains between Hollywood writers and the way life is lived by those in the lower-tier of the 99 percent. If the fantastically out-of-touch gynophobia of “Work It” accomplishes anything, it’s making the casual racism and xenophobia of “2 Broke Girls” look respectable.
And unlike with “Last Man Standing” or “Man Up,” there’s no escape for “Work It.” The writers have gone all in with their “The women are stealing our jobs, so we must become women” premise. There’s no room to course correct. It’s too late to recast. And there’s nothing in the pilot to give any indication of a direction “Work It” could go that would make it more funny and less excruciating.
I refuse to abandon the hope that this is all a big, silly joke on ABC’s part and that “Work It” will never air. But with only a few hours until the premiere, it’s evident the joke will be on viewers.
“Work It” premieres on Tuesday, January 3 at 8:30 p.m.