In 1975, the FCC established a policy known as the Family Viewing Hour. Under this national “recommendation” — any attempts to legally enforce it were overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in time for the 1977 season — the broadcast networks were encouraged to air “family-friendly” programming from 8 p.m. until 9 p.m. And despite the lack of legal obligation, the big three listened, filling the first hour of prime time with heart-warming fare like The Cosby Show and Highway to Heaven. As the television landscape has stratified and subdivided over the past decade, the pressure to schedule shows about hugging families and mulleted angels diminished considerably, but, on the whole, the quasi-sanctity of the 8 p.m. hour was more or less respected.
The debut of NBC’s new Wednesday lineup featured an uninterrupted jag of jerk-off jokes, set pieces about ungroomed pubic hair, and an entire b-plot devoted to the misadventures of an adult woman unable to defecate in the same apartment as her fiancÚ. But it wasn’t the coarseness of the humor in Whitney and the debut of its toxic twin, Are You There, Chelsea? that offended. It was the cynicism. Both shows have been unfairly written off as “old-fashioned” due to their multicamera filming style and dependence on creaky tropes like laugh tracks and casual racism. But this does a disservice to all the yeomanlike comedies that managed to charm, entertain, or, at the very least, distract 8 p.m. audiences for decades without resorting to a color-blind dwarf with a fledgling designated driver business. The sour venom that runs through both Whitney and Chelsea is thoroughly contemporary, a shallow nasty streak that mistakes shocks for laughs and phony conflict for comedy. Pairing the two is like spiking lemon juice with vinegar, and the scheduling only makes the insult worse: no matter their morals, no family should be forced to endure television this bad.
Still, if there’s a winner in this race to the bottom it might actually be Whitney. In its previous perch on Thursday nights, the show was a crude interloper, the proverbial Baby Ruth in the swimming pool of what was once TV’s classiest night of comedy. Now, paired with its coarser cousin, it suddenly seems marginally tolerable. This is partly due to a barrage of midstream course corrections to make the show more likable; at times the avalanche of network notes are so evident that viewers are at risk for paper cuts. Whitney’s aggravating habit of laughing at her costars’ bits — which, to be fair, was one of the only signs that Cummings is, in fact, human and not a rogue Snarktron 8000 on the run from the SkyNet factory — has clearly been seized as a positive. Now everyone finds everything uproarious, from Roxanne’s tired cougar act to the caveman policeman’s monologue about jacking off in front of a two-way mirror. All this superficial softening can’t brighten Whitney’s dark heart, though. The show is still nothing more than a thirty-minute Pat Benatar song, a nihilistic exercise in watching unpleasant people bicker like children. Whitney, like Chelsea, wants credit for being brash but seems strangely comfortable sharing her disdain for icky things like honesty and intimacy — and no amount of password sharing can change that. Even when Whitney tries to hug you, it’s still hitting you.
Still, if Whitney remains a tedious slap to the face, then the abysmal (and abysmally titled) Are You There, Chelsea? is a kick below the belt. Starring the dependably professional Laura Prepon as the titular train wreck, Chelsea is a sitcom completely devoid of purpose. Opening with the memorable phrase “I finally power-slurped the worm,” last night’s pilot tracked the mundane misadventures of the quasifictional Handler as she stumbled the light disastrous from a drunk-tank make-out sesh with a transsexual to a pillow-talk offer to trim the pubes of a hirsute ginger. Along for the ride are a dismaying collection of straw men and women, from the Mildly Ethnic Father to the potential love interest, Douchey Sam Malone, all of whom are there solely to serve as punch-line receptacles for the mean-spirited barbs Prepon drops with the same frequency as her drawers. Even worse is the presence of Handler herself, mailing in a performance as her own virtuous sister from a wooden planet far, far away. With every gushy entreaty she makes toward her wayward avatar — Handler’s Sloane is not only pregnant and disapproving, her husband is also in Afghanistan so, you know, America! — Handler appears to get angrier and angrier toward the cue cards. Which, when you consider it, is perfectly reasonable. At least Whitney had the perspective to make a joke out of her character’s drunken desire to be validated for her poor behavior — last night’s airing of a “Girls Gone Wild” video provided one of the hour’s few chuckles. Chelsea drowns you in a lowball of smug self-regard.
Still, credit where credit is due. With this one-two gut punch of dreck, NBC has finally managed to power-slurp the worm — straight out of the bottom of the barrel.
Andy Greenwald is a Grantland staff writer.