ABC’s new “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23” (tomorrow night at 9:30) feels familiar in many strange ways. It’s an odd-couple comedy, in which Dreama Walker’s sunny June is paired with Krysten Ritter as the wicked title character Chloe, but odd couples in comedy is a tradition that long, long precedes even “The Odd Couple” itself. What’s strange is how many incredibly specific ways it invokes some past comedies.
First you have that title, which, like ABC’s “GCB” this spring and CBS’ “$#*! My Dad Says” last season, tries to use the currency of a curse word in the title without actually using that word. (Though it’s used in dialogue in the pilot.)
For that matter, there’s the sense that this is another one of those occasional attempts (FOX’s “Action” being the best of those) to make a network sitcom that has the kind of edgy content – Chloe is fully nude (albeit pixelated) in one scene, and her across-the-window neighbor is usually masturbating just out of frame – that suggests a cable comedy.
Then there’s the presence of “Dawson’s Creek” alum James Van Der Beek in the part he was born to play, baby: “Dawson’s Creek” alum James Van Der Beek, who’s best friends with the B—- in Apt. 23. ABC had another Wednesday sitcom in the late ’90s, “It’s Like, You Know…,” where Jennifer Grey played herself as the wacky neighbor, Neil Patrick Harris jump-started his career playing a debauched version of himself in the “Harold & Kumar” films, and Matt LeBlanc just got an Emmy nomination for doing the same on Showtime’s “Episodes.” (And the Beek, like LeBlanc, is beneficiary of a joke about how well-endowed he is.)
And because of its late premiere date, “Don’t Trust the B” becomes the last of many, many new shows this season to have its main character’s life ruined by some kind of Bernie Madoff figure (see also “2 Broke Girls,” “Revenge,” and, again, “GCB”).
So you have this odd couple body that’s been stitched together, Frankenstein-style, with a lot of quirky yet familiar pieces. And
having seen three episodes of “Don’t Trust the B” (two of which ABC already made available online), some of it works, while other pieces either need to be dropped or improved going forward.
Fortunately, there’s a solid foundation in Walker and Ritter as the uneasy roommates. Each nicely embodies their respective stereotype even as they’re transcending it, where Walker’s just as capable of being crazy and ruthless as Ritter is of being vulnerable, even if it’s incredibly brief before Chloe goes back to a character who has, in the words of The Beek from the Creek, “the morals of a pirate.”
And speaking of Dawson, every time I worried that that particular gag was about to wear thin, the show’s writers (headed by creator Nahnatchka Khan) find a new way to tweak it, so it’s not just about Beek being propositioned by women who want him to sleep with them while wearing Dawson’s red flannel shirt. In one episode, he teaches an acting class at NYU just to prove he’s better than James Franco; in another, we learn that he’s the latest C-list addition to “Dancing with the Stars.” Van Der Beek has been a good sport about the nature of his celebrity for a while, and he proves a graceful partner for both Ritter and Walker.
But there are a lot of weird tonal issues with the rest of the show, which mostly aspires to be a live-action cartoon but doesn’t always pull it off. So most of the supporting characters – including aforementioned pervert neighbor Eli (Michael Blaiklock) and Chloe’s stalker ex-roommate Robin (Liza Lapira) – exist in two dimensions, if that, and it’s never clear whether Chloe is meant to get away with everything in a world operating by recognizable logic or one closer to Khan’s previous gig writing for “American Dad.”
There’s also the matter of how long the show can live up to different parts of its title title. Chloe, it turns out, has been hustling prospective roommates out of rent money for years before scaring them away, and June is the first one to actually stand up to her. But after they reach a détente at the end of the pilot, the mistrust returns in the second episode, before a later one tries to flip things around by having June learn too much from hanging around Chloe. There’s a push-pull to this kind of duo, but it’s also tricky to have them stay friends without defanging Chloe and requiring a name change to “Trust, But Verify the Vamp in Apt. 23.”
I also found that, no matter what stage the friendship was in, I didn’t laugh out loud all that much at any of the episodes, though I was pleased overall by the leads and surreal worldview. With good raw material at the center, I’ll give a comedy time to find itself, and the third episode I watched was the best of the three. I just wonder about the viability on ABC for something this off-brand. I imagine this will be an even worse match for “Modern Family” than either “Cougar Town” or “Happy Endings” (even “Mr. Sunshine (Yay)” was a better fit tonally). In an ideal world, this is a big hit and becomes the anchor of a new comedy night featuring “Cougar Town,” “Happy Endings” and something else. In the actual world, I can see the average “Modern Family” fan turning this thing off less than 30 seconds after we meet the masturbating neighbor.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org