The new ABC cross-dressing sitcom “Work It” won’t debut until tomorrow night at 8:30, but it’s already been subject to protests from both GLAAD and several transgender activist groups. And while I would never deign to tell any minority group (particularly one I’m not a member of) what they do and don’t have a right to be offended by, in this case, it feels like the offense being taken is too narrow.
“Work It” could be seen as an insult to the transgender community, sure. But it’s also an affront to all women, and men, and thinking adults.
(The only reason it’s not offensive to kids is that the one underage character is on-screen too briefly, but her limited screen time suggests she’ll deserve her own protest within an episode or two.)
“Work It” is the last, and least, of ABC’s trilogy of new sitcoms about the crisis of masculinity in modern-day America. “Last Man Standing” more or less abandoned that as a premise and has just become a “Home Improvement” where Tim has daughters instead of sons, and “Man Up!” is already gone and forgotten, but the male panic is more deeply baked into this one and will be hard to let go of.
Ben Koldyke (Robin’s co-anchor boyfriend Don on “How I Met Your Mother”) and Amaury Nolasco (Sucre from “Prison Break”) play Lee and Angel, a car salesman and mechanic who’ve been out of work for a year. There are jobs out there, but not for them, it seems.
“It’s a mancession,” rants their oafish friend Brian (John Caparulo). “Women are taking over the workforce. Soon, they’ll get rid of men.” He speculates that men will only be kept around as sex slaves, but only for the kind of sex they don’t like: “kissing and cuddling and listening.”
While the auto industry is in trouble, Lee discovers that there are tremendous opportunities in pharmaceutical sales, but not for men – because, as one pharma girl explains it to him, “The doctors seemed to want to nail them less.”
Before you can say “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Lee has slipped into his wife’s clothes – even though she’s petite and he’s built like a free safety – and conned his way into a job for a local pharmaceutical conglomerate. Though he couldn’t look more like a guy in drag unless he was sporting a handlebar mustache, he gets the job in part by telling the boss what a tough time he had dealing with the sexist jerks at his last job, where “the guys were always sassing me, or patting my fanny, or ogling my teets.”
Anyone who would take Lee for a woman and/or hire “her” for a job would have to be a moron of epic proportions – which is basically how all the female characters on “Work It” are written.
The Disney Channel sitcoms I occasionally watch with my daughter have more respect for both their characters and audience than “Work It” does. Everyone is blind or a fool and every situation exists only to set up something vaguely resembling a joke. It’s hard to tell whether the show is most contemptuous of men, women or anyone dumb enough to watch it.
There’s a scene near the end of the pilot where all the co-workers go out to a nightclub, and the “club” set looks so cheap you wouldn’t be surprised to see it in a high school assembly about the dangers of underage drinking. I generally don’t worry about bad production design, but this one just screams that someone behind the scenes decided they only needed to do the bare minimum to get the job done, and that’s the attitude that most of the show gives off in one way or another.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with cross-dressing as a device for comedy. When the AFI named its 100 funniest movies of all time back in 2000, the top two slots went to “Some Like It Hot” and “Tootsie” (and “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Victor/Victoria” were further down the list). But the sight of a man in a dress (or, to a lesser extent, a woman in a suit and tie) gets you one laugh if you’re lucky. After that, you have to do something interesting with the characters and/or situation, and “Work It” would rather just tee-hee at the basic idea, and out of some very basic, tired bits of wisdom about how men are from Mars, women from Venus, blah blah blah.
Lee, for instance, is shocked to learn in his female alter ego that perhaps his wife wants him to take her someplace nice for a romantic dinner, rather than inviting her to tag along while he drinks with the guys at the corner bar. (And also that no one says “pocketbook” in the year 2011.) And when Angel joins the masquerade, his new co-workers are amazed that he knows how to fix a car.
“Tootsie” and “Victor/Victoria” came out in 1982, which was a weird nexus of Hollywood gender-bending, as it also featured John Lithgow’s Oscar-nominated role as a transsexual in “The World According to Garp” and the second and final season of ABC’s “Bosom Buddies,” to which “Work It” keeps being compared. (1983, meanwhile, gave us Linda Hunt’s Oscar-winning performance as a man in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” and Barbra Streisand in “Yentl” being only slightly more convincing as a man than Ben Koldyke and Amaury Nolasco are as women.)
“Bosom Buddies” makes an easy punchline for someone looking to pick at the resume of Tom Hanks, but it was actually a solid comedy, mainly because its writers recognized almost instantly that Hanks and Peter Scolari were funny together regardless of what they were wearing. By the time that second season started, the show had all but abandoned the premise of two guys dressing as women in exchange for cheap rent, and just let the two leads goof around with each other. (Every now and then, you’d see the guys in dresses as they entered or exited the apartment, and it was always played as a joke: “Can you believe this used to be what the show was about?”)
The moral, as we continue to learn today from shows like “Cougar Town” and “Happy Endings,” is that while a high-concept premise might get you on the air – ABC president Paul Lee explained his affinity for the show by telling reporters, “I’m a Brit. It’s in my contract. I have to do a cross-dressing show on the air” – you need to have talented people in front of and behind the camera for anyone to want to watch past the first episode or two. And when you stip away the wigs, makeup, padded bras and Ace bandages, there’s nothing about “Work It” that suggests a show that will ever be appealing to either gender.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org