With little fanfare, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 was cancelled a few weeks ago. So far as I know, there hasn’t been a protest. Yet I was one of show’s few admiring if not evangelical fans. I particularly like the way it consistently befuddles and ridicules the highly conventional sitcom aspirations of its protagonist, June (played by the bright and big-eyed Dreama Walker, who is fantastic). June wants normal things, and for this she’s pushed into a Sisyphian struggle in which she frequently fails by behaving with optimism in the human race that so consistently disappoints her. On the flip side are the joyfully hedonistic “B” of the title, Chloe, and James Van Der Beek as himself (it was funny, trust me). In the midst of June’s simple ambitions, their extraordinary selfishness and superficiality works to destroy June’s dreams. As a deconstruction of the “we’re justa buncha people livin in the big city in apartments we would never be able to afford it it weren’ta fiction!” sitcom, it was frequently funny if not perfect (“The pervert next door” was just as unfunny as it sounds). Yet, perversely, … the B reaches out to the people who hated Friends and were indifferent to Seinfeld, even though those people are so suspicious of network television that they probably never watched it anyway. Also, they’re probably this guy:
In other words, why I liked it is exactly why it got cancelled.
Happy Endings, however, will continue unabated despite similarly low ratings. The show is ostensibly the kind of sitcom that the B is parodying and undermining. But I get the feeling that Happy Endings thinks it’s doing what I’ve just described above, and is immensely proud of itself for doing so. Yet while June’s almost platonic likability is constantly parodied, the fashionable bros and chicas of Happy Endings are ironically presented as the implausibly likable people who we’re supposed to wish we were friends with. To the contrary, I am glad I do not know any of these narcissists. In a recent episode, Penny – the show’s funniest character – spends time with normal individuals and wishes she was regressively engaging in impossible sitcom behavior with the core group. This is not an unfamiliar plot, but it happens in such a way that prizes the brilliant scenarios that the show’s creator see themselves as developing. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a “look at me” quality to …the B as well, but the gang at Happy Endings are always drawing attention to not-so-bad behavior as if it’s the kind of button-pushing that you don’t find on free TV. Yet . . . the B had the advantage of never desiring to make its characters likable, or to have us care about them. (And I find Happy Endings funny, and will continue watching it, even if its maddening, and even if Damon Wayans’ son’s acting style can be best described as “slightly more naturalistic than the Hamburgler”)
I listen to and read a lot of TV critics. They’re everywhere. I don’t know why someone should be recapping and thematizing the plot of New Girl or Bunheads and discussing its virtues and failings within an hour of its air-time, but there are a lot of them and they’re usually complaining on Twitter about having to review Criminal Minds before they go to bed. One of the virtues of sitcoms that these folks are constantly trumpeting is the value of “characters.” They’re always mentioning the episodes of The Simpsons in which Homer and Lisa have meaningful interaction, or the Sam and Diane relationship on Cheers. And, hey, that’s all great, but frankly I prefer the wall-to-wall silliness of Marge vs. the Monorail or Mr. Plow, or the episode when Cliff loses all his money on Final Jeopardy because he explains that three people he’s never of are “three people who have never been in my kitchen.” Yet those critics perversely love Community and talk about their investment in characters who are never remotely consistent and are often involved in comic book plots. I find Joel McHale’s character to be reprehensible in a way that I enjoy watching his comeuppance, and he’s the star of the show. Gillian Jacobs’ Britta seems insufferable; that’s supposed to be the point, right? I enjoy Alison Brie’s endless well of perkiness because it seems to be so misplaced and irrational, not because it seems like a clear outgrowth of her character. But mostly I enjoy plots centered around blanket-forts or paintball games framed as a spaghetti western parody. I like Community because of its experimentation, its wit its visual invention, and its endless supply of references. Not because these characters are people.
Caring about the characters on . . . The B is something of a fools errand. And with that out of the way, I was just free to enjoy their dangerous and off-kilter behavior. The joke of the show is that June, the corn-fed moralist, is just as self-destructive as Chloe, the hedonist, and nearly as vacuous as James Van Der Beek’s caricature of himself. The self-righteousness of June leads her, as she pits herself against these cosmopolitans, to denounce the hellish version of the big city that the show places her in. It’s not only that Chloe was better trained to navigate the worlds that June was constantly eating June up, it’s that what June sees as her fundamental optimism and decency is the same kind of misguided entitlement that Lena Dunham is chronicling on Girls. June believes that her work ethic makes her better than everyone else, while Chloe believes in nothing. And yet, because Dreama Walker is such a fine comic actress, we enjoy watching this. I will argue (probably inconsistently) that June’s defiant dignity puts her in the category of the Little Tramp or Cosmo Kramer: ridiculous figures whose self-belief and inexhaustible spirit makes their absurdity not only bearable but also weirdly inspiring.
In an outstanding article about the death of Mitch Hedberg, Sam Anderson wrote, “Sitcoms aren’t about jokes, they’re about zany neighbors who eat too much of your pizza and photogenic dogs who give you meaningful looks.” In 2005, he was writing in that dismal age when Arrested Development was doomed to be canceled and before 30 Rock and The Office would reinvent the thirty minute comedy. And what I’ve imposed above about Sisyphus and Charlie Chaplin is admittedly a weak intellectualization of a show that aspired to very little. Don’t Trust the B in Apartment was about jokes, and that’s mostly why I’ll miss it.