The most obvious way to describe ABC’s new comedy Work It is that it is what it is. Or in the vague, polite words of Randy Jackson, “You did your thing, dawg!,” which doesn’t really say that the “thing” is good. Just that they did it. Work It is a multi-camera comedy about two men who dress up as women in order to get jobs, all the while, keeping it a secret from their other friends and families, and somehow managing to fool their new female co-workers that they are just two bigger-built women with deep voices and Adam’s apples. It is, as they say, what it is. I could probably end this review there and say that if you think something like that is funny, tune in. You might even like it. And if it sounds completely stupid, dated and/or offensive, well, you may be on the right track there as well. In truth, with a show like this, it may come down to the viewer’s preference and it’s for that reason that I actually have more to say on the matter.
With more and more single-camera comedies emerging, the formula of the multi-camera format tends to stand-out much more. Perhaps that’s why I have a hard time sitting through an episode of Two and a Half Men. Even having it on in the background has the tendency to get under my skin, forcing me to change the channel. Strangely, I have no problem going back to reruns of Friends, Seinfeld or any other great sitcom from yesteryear, so maybe it’s not entirely the format or maybe nostalgia adds value - that’s a subject for another time.
Regardless, by contrast to shows like Modern Family, Community and The Office, the multi-camera'ed Two and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls and (in an effort not to single CBS out), Whitney all seem to follow a similar rhythm, despite the fact that the subject matter is different from one series to the next. While the formerly mentioned shows offer more subtle, reactionary humor, the latter series rely largely on the dialog. The lines are said, the joke is set up, people laugh, move on. Line, line, line, joke, laugh (sometimes another joke and more laughs, next line...). Work It’s pilot follows that format.
I don’t want to focus much more on multi-camera vs. single camera debate, because regardless of my preference for the latter, I do think there’s still a place for multi-camera comedies, and given CBS’ ratings on Monday nights, there’s certainly still an audience for them. For such a ridiculous, incredibly sit-commish set up, Work It might not have been a good fit for the single-camera format anyway. In fact, I’m willing to go as far as to say that the staged backdrop is part of what will make this series work, if it has any chance of working. And that will depend on whether or not people even want a show like this.
Believe it or not, I went into Work It wanting to give the pilot a chance. Despite how dated the concept sounded, there was a sort of retro-appeal to it that catered to my appreciation for silly stories about characters who, for some reason, have to dress up like the opposite sex in order to pull off some necessary feat. I’m sort of a sucker for those, despite how unbelievable they are (or I was back in the 80's and early '90's, anyway). Did those girls on that soccer team really not see that Jonathan Brandis’ “Martha” was just a boy in a blond wig in Ladybugs? Did Rick actually believe “Terry’s” overdone tough-guy act meant she was really Just One of the Guys? Well, yes, technically they all bought it and we’re supposed to buy that they bought it, despite the fact that it’s ridiculous. I’m guessing that’s what worked about Bosom Buddies so many years ago.
That’s comedy. Whether or not it’s still funny today is debatable. But for the sake of going into Work It with an open mind, I took my appreciation for this kind of humor with me and it’s largely for that reason that I was able to enjoy the performances by Ben Koldyke and Amaury Nolasco, who play Lee and Angel, two out of work men who, after a year of unemployment, dress up as women to score jobs as pharmaceutical sales reps. Koldyke and Nolasco don’t hold back, which allows us to find the humor in their discomfort and desperation, if not their situation.
Their new jobs put them in the paths of their coworkers Grace (Rebecca Mader), Kelly (Kate Reinders), and Kristin (Kirstin Eggers), and Vanessa (Rochelle Aytes), their boss. While Vanessa seems to fall more into the normal (or non-silly) category as far as women go, the three female co-workers come off as cartoonish, flaky, and or catty (it varies from one character to the next). Of course, this type of stereotyping is sort of necessary to blend with the concept of two men posing as women. Lee and Angel are very manly. Kelly, Grace and Kristin and very girly. When they have conversations, we’re meant to see the contrast and laugh. Line, line, line, joke, laugh. In the end, it’s all just silly.
I could address the offensiveness of the jokes, but I’d be misrepresenting myself there. I’m really not easily offended and the nature of this series isn’t mean-spirited or hateful. Are their sexist jokes in the pilot? Yes, and there’s at least one ethnic joke, which might rub people the wrong way. I can also understand if Work It were to offend people among the transgendered community, as the topic of cross-dressing is probably not a laughing matter to them. However the pilot doesn’t really dig that deeply into the subject. Much of the focus is on Lee and Angel’s need to get jobs, apparently at all costs, even if it means putting on women’s clothing. And after that, it’s a series of jokes about them trying to pretend to be women. If anything from the series were to offend me, it’s the obvious stereotyping of men and women, which is more offensive to my sense of humor than it is to me as a woman, but I could probably make the same argument about Last Man Standing.
What Work It comes down to for me is that I’m more curious to see how viewers react to this and whether the series manages to find its footing, than I am about the show itself or where the story is going. Can a show like this work on television today? ABC is allowing us to find out. It might tank, and if it does, many will say they saw it coming. But who knows? Maybe in these trying times, a goofy series about two men pretending to be women is just what viewers are looking for.
Work It premieres Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 8:30 p.m., ET on ABC.