In Which I Try My Hardest to Defend the Recently Canceled Whitney


Whitney was cancelled by NBC Thursday. No one seems sad about this. I don’t even know that I am sad about it per se, except that I watched Whitney. Every episode, weekly, for two years. There. I wrote that.

To arbiters of taste, liking a show like Whitney lies somewhere in the transom of disgrace between liking Two and Half Men (not acceptable under any circumstances) and liking Parks and Recreation (you better think it’s funny). Whitney was like Parks and Rec in that it employed actual people who make their living being funny, but cultivated a Two and a Half Men traditional sitcom (read: uglier) aesthetic.

There have been plenty of good things written about what a bad show Whitney was; the creator of the show, Whitney Cummings, has been called out for her sexist, racist and rapey writing on Whitney, as well as on her other show, CBS’s 2 Broke Girls.

I can’t deny any of that. But for however bad the show was, I really wanted it to be better and I took whatever good things there were about it to justify watching it to myself (and few others. This wasn’t a show you could talk about with your friends. At least not mine.). There were good actors on it; comedian Chris D’Elia had believable chemistry with Cummings as her boyfriend/husband Alex, especially in the flashback episode where you see how the two met. I found myself rooting for Rhea Seehorn’s stern Roxanne to get together with Mark (played by Dan O’Brien), despite what an idiot he was. The token ethnic characters were never given much to go off of; Tone Bell played RJ, a black bartender introduced in season 2 who had basically no plot lines of his own, and their Indian friend Neal was written out at the end of season one after he broke up with Whitney’s best friend Lily because he realized he was gay.

It was Lily who I really liked. Played by Zoe Lister Jones – who you might know from the middling movie Lola Versus – was really a delight to watch, probably because of how totally weird she was (this is a great interview with her if you’d like to learn more).

But one character (or even a couple middling ones) can’t carry a show. It takes looking at just one episode to realize what kept me going back to Whitney.

In season two’s “Crazy, Stupid, Words”, Cummings decides to dive into the words women can’t stand being called, like crazy. “You know I don’t love that word,” Whitney says to Alex in a particularly hushed and pointed tone. “I don’t understand why anytime a woman stands up for herself she’s crazy. I mean, for a guy to be called crazy, he’s got to be a homeless crackhead talking to pigeons. For a woman to be called crazy she just has to talk.”

The episode continues with the rest of the women discussing their “trigger” words, or words they hate being called. Lily says she hates flakey – “If I cancel hanging out with you, it’s not because I’m flakey, it’s because I don’t want to hang out with you” – while Roxanne despises bitch, explaining that “It’s not my fault if your jokes aren’t funny.” (AGREED.)

Of course, shortly later, Alex calls Whitney crazy. As you might predict, her face is all:

She literally says, “Excuse me?!” in that voice that people use to say that phrase. And Alex says, “I’ll pack an overnight bag” and skulks away.

The rest of the episode includes a few other more uninteresting and probably also sexist plot lines. It’s the “crazy” issue that continues in full force; the writers reveal that Alex hates the word “stupid” because he was called that as a kid. In turn, Whitney has her own reasons for hating crazy:

“I know crazy, I come from crazy. And I am not that. I am not that for you. So for you of all people to call me that really sucks. It invalidates how hard I have worked to not be crazy so that I didn’t ruin this [relationship].”

And ultimately, that was the problem with Whitney: that’s a total cop-out! Like a lot of sitcoms, Whitney used male-female stereotypes as plot points, tried to subvert them, and then ended up making the large-scale issues appear like quirks that were specific to the personalities of the characters. We learn that Whitney truly doesn’t like the word crazy because of her family, not because she’s sick of being called that and it touches a personal nerve. And the “solution” she and Alex come up with – that call her “Sophia Vergara” (don’t even get me started on the implication here that Latin women are loud and insane) instead of crazy and that she call him “genius” instead of stupid (cue the stereotype that men like to think they’re brilliant even when they’re not) – avoids the original premise, which was actually pretty funny and true. Women do hate being called crazy. And bitchy. And flakey.

“I just wanted to watch it become better” might not be the best reason to spend approximately 14 hours of your life watching a show that just isn’t very good, but it makes up most of mine. I can’t really say I’ll miss Whitney, but I’ll miss what I wanted it to be: a very funny show that’s actually honest about what women want.

Image via NBC

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