Television

'2 Broke Girls': CBS Bets Big On Kat Dennings, But The Show Lets Her Down

Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs star in CBS's 2 Broke Girls. i i

Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs star in CBS's 2 Broke Girls. Richard Cartwright/CBS hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Cartwright/CBS
Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs star in CBS's 2 Broke Girls.

Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs star in CBS's 2 Broke Girls.

Richard Cartwright/CBS

Half-hour comedies are like cars: They're all trying to accomplish basically the same task, but you can get from Point A to Point B in a lot of ways. Some shows follow a traditional setup-punch format, like Two And A Half Men; some shows blast birdshot made up of intense and unpredictable weirdness, like 30 Rock; and some shows rely at their best on judicious use of silences and small comedy, like The Office.

The major problem with CBS's competent but uninspiring 2 Broke Girls, co-created by comedian Whitney Cummings and Sex And The City writer Michael Patrick King, is that the two lead actors don't seem to have agreed on what kind of a show they're on, and there's not much indication that either can perform well on the show the other is trying to make.

The best thing about Broke, by a large margin, is the gifted Kat Dennings, who did sharp, naturalistic work in Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist opposite Michael Cera and, in a supporting role, ruthlessly stole Thor this summer from not only its comic-book hero but also her scene-mates, Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgard.

Dennings approaches her role as the down-to-earth waitress Max in Broke like she's in a laid-back comedy based in mostly unaffected delivery, broken up by broader moments. She's trying to be on a show like, for instance, CBS's How I Met Your Mother.

Her co-star, Beth Behrs, approaches her role as flighty, spoiled Wharton grad and reluctant waitress Caroline like she's on a super-traditionally broad sitcom where all the acting is loud and emphatic — something like Two And A Half Men or even, at times, a tween show like iCarly. She's mugging constantly, hitting the punch lines with a sledgehammer, and generally seeming like she and Dennings, while they're both correctly delivering in the styles they've chosen, can't possibly be in the same world.

Among other things, Dennings wants Max to be smart and cool, which makes it really distracting that the dated writing has her saying absurd things, as when she suggests that hipsters listen to Coldplay, which almost literally could not be farther from the truth, in that hipsters often define themselves by their rejection of Coldplay.

The premise of the show is that Max and Caroline are a kind of odd couple who are thrown together as unlikely roommates and co-workers when Max's boyfriend is revealed as a cad and Caroline's wealthy father goes down in a Madoff-like scandal. And there's nothing wrong with the fact that they're different from each other; it's that the tone of their performances doesn't match. Jack Klugman and Tony Randall played sharply defined characters, but they were working in the same style of comedy. Behrs and Dennings aren't.

This failure to find a consistent tone is surprising, given that the pilot was directed by comedy superstar James Burrows, veteran of Mary Tyler Moore and Friends and most of the other sitcoms of note over the last 30 years. But Burrows handles oodles of pilots — he is credited on the pilots of Two And A Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and William Shatner's Bleep My Dad Says, to name three shows with very different fates. And he's directed episodes of not only Kelsey Grammer's good shows, Cheers and Frasier, but also his disastrous Hank and Back To You.

The rest of Broke, unfortunately, is more like Behrs' gaudy, musty show than Dennings' more modern one, down to a distasteful caricature of the Asian diner owner and an ex-boyfriend so bluntly obnoxious it's simply impossible to believe Max, as interpreted by Dennings, ever would have dated him. These seem like small things, but they define the frame of mind you're asking the audience to be in. One minute, they're hearing Kat Dennings say "this is the sound that dries up my vagina" in the first scene, which sounds like it's supposed to be edgy and adult (highly, highly questionable anyway), but then they're seeing Behr slapstick a can of whipped cream into her own face, which is Brady Bunch stuff. What show is this? For that matter, what decade is it?

There are moments when it seems like Dennings has been encouraged to make her performance louder and bigger to match Behrs and the overpowering audience laughter, but her heart isn't in it. She doesn't mug convincingly, and that's really not a bad thing.

The unevenness of the show is too bad, because Dennings is a dynamite comic actress, and the fact that she wants to try the grind of a weekly show should be great news for a genre that can use all the vibrant, strong, smart young actresses it can get. (This is one area of television that often treats actresses over 35 better than ones under 30.) This just isn't the show Dennings needs to do her best work. It's too tonally inconsistent, the writing is too rickety, and she doesn't belong in an old-style multi-camera sitcom. She doesn't really belong on CBS on Mondays; she belongs on NBC on Thursdays.

CBS has said over and over again that 2 Broke Girls tested off the charts, and the network has very high hopes for it. Sandwiched between How I Met Your Mother and the overhauled Two And A Half Men — which will be its time slot beginning next week after a preview tonight at 9:30 p.m. — it may hold up in the ratings. But unless the writing is sharpened and the dissonant styles can be reconciled, it won't be using its assets to their best advantage.

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