Everyone wants to reinvent the sitcom wheel, whether it’s changing the number of cameras or tripling the speed of the gags. But no matter how ambitious one gets, it’s really just rearranging deck chairs at a resort in the Catskills. All sitcoms live or die on a frustratingly simple question: Are these people I want to spend time with?
If you listen closely during the pilot of Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23, premiering tonight at 9:30 Eastern, it’s possible to hear network note-givers at ABC shouting that very query from the craft services table. Creator Nahnatchka Khan cut her teeth on American Dad!, part of the forced-labor joke camp that is the Family Guy empire, a sourly fizzy phenomenon that takes advantage of animation’s inherent lack of humanity to avoid bothering with any. So it’s no surprise that almost everything about Apt. 23, at least at the start, is exhaustingly cartoonish: Dreama Walker’s June, her face as broad and bland as the Midwestern plains she hails from, arrives in what appears to be Sex and the City NYC — all glass windows, high heels, and higher hopes — just in time for the financial apocalypse. When her would-be boss at her dream hedge fund downsizes — in a matter of hours — to barista, June has no choice but to follow suit. She’s also reduced to moving her hope chest to the only slightly shabbier-chic world of the Friends NYC (smaller kitchens and coffee shops, but the living rooms are just as spacious), wherein she meets a new roommate, the titular bitch in Apartment 23.
There’s much to like about Krysten Ritter’s performance as Chloe, a pill-popping, petty-thieving, panty-dropping terror. “It’s called a hooker’s toothbrush,” she says in the second episode about her early-morning routine of gargling with Peppermint Schnapps. With her cavalier attitude toward alcohol and curious decision making regarding how best to celebrate June’s birthday (said decision involves a cake and June’s freelancing, soon-to-be-ditched fiancé) Chloe is actually a better subject for a tut-tutting Frank Bruni column than the clumsily promiscuous protagonists of Girls. But the character itself needs work: Either she’s a needy nightmare who pals around with equally vacuous ego-monster James Van Der Beek (a fictional construct who beds coeds on the back of Dawson’s trusty red flannel; the real Van Der Beek plays the part like a losing Wimbledon finalist who knows he’s about to be congratulated for being a good sport) or she’s a wounded ostrich who only armors herself in mascara and skinny jeans as a defense mechanism against the mean streets of Tribeca. “Clearly, I have issues,” she declares at one point; a press release made flesh.
The garish pilot lurches between these extremes like a bipolar spectator at the X Games, finally settling on a strange détente between the new roomies. (As Chloe puts it, “You can love Grandma’s ottoman and still want to make money on pills.”) It’s all loud and edgy in a way that will be recognizable to those familiar with Khan’s prior gig. June and Chloe, thin as they are, are surrounded by even flimsier cutouts, including Liza Lapira as a hyperventilating neighbor who’s obsessed with the Bitch, and Michael Blaiklock as exactly the same thing, only he spends his time furiously masturbating from the window across the way, presumably spilling his seed along with clunky one-liners. None of this is encouraging and, more damningly, none of it is funny. But while the premise fails the sitcom standard — you simply can’t make a loveable show out of hateful people — future episodes actually contain some promise. Khan sticks to her MacFarlane-ish mandate (Chloe sets June up with her father, Van Der Beek is forced to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous Dawson’s Creek fans) but, in a move sure to cause mass exhalation at Walt Disney HQ, she also seems more than ready to ditch the main vein of antagonism that fueled the pilot and fall back to more comfortable, conservative ground: In this version, June and Chloe are a modern-day Odd Couple, one neat, one sloppy seconds. You definitely don’t have to trust the bitch, but it certainly helps if you like her.