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Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23

on Wed, 07/11/2012 - 00:00

Television sitcoms have traditionally followed the same basic format ever since Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason set the standard in the 1950s. The word “sitcom” itself is shorthand for “situation comedy,” meaning that the comedy extends from the situation. The characters, meanwhile, tend to be a bit oddball yet still relatable. The humor is designed to be broad enough to appeal to a mass audience and is punctuated by a laugh track to make the jokes funnier than they often appear. It is a blueprint that many classic shows have been able to master through the decades, but also one that results in an assortment of lackluster creations that somehow still muster large enough ratings to remain on the air for years.

Although network television still clings to this traditional sitcom formula, cable channels have pushed the boundaries by developing comedies that are deemed more cutting-edge. Laugh tracks are dropped, as well as the standard three-camera method of filming. While the comedy still derives from the situations, meanwhile, the situations themselves tend to be more absurd and less relatable for mainstream audiences. The sitcoms on FX are a prime example, as the cable channel has built a stable of such unorthodox comedies as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie and Wilfred. When Charlie Sheen and his post-Two and a Half Men effort Anger Management premiered on FX, many television critics wondered aloud how a traditional comedy could ever fit in with the cutting-edge efforts that already air on the cable channel. To a lesser degree, the ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 has the opposite problem as many of its traits are more cable than network oriented.

A non-laugh track, single-camera comedy, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 follows Indiana transplant June (Dreama Walker) as she arrives in New York City with big dreams of making it on Wall Street only to find employment at a local coffee shop as her only option. Forced to obtain a roommate in order to make ends meet, the naïve June moves in with Chloe (Krysten Ritter), a self-proclaimed party girl with amoral tendencies. While the initial set-up may appear as a female version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 ventures more into It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia territory as Chloe is prone to financial scams rather than gainful employment, treats sex as a distraction from boredom and demonstrates little regard for the feelings of others. In short, she’s the four letter word that the “B” in the title infers.

Unlike the gang on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, however, Chloe is not motivated by petty greed or vindictiveness. Actress Krysten Ritter instead instills the character with a sense of innocence regarding the greater world-at-large just as much as new roommate June is unschooled when it comes to matters outside her Midwestern upbringings. Although Chloe does not necessarily “grow” as a person per say, she does learn such formerly alien concepts as compassion, sympathy and even caring about her fellow man—or at least those whom she has chosen as friends. In this sense, Chloe is closer to a dimwitted Holly Golightly from the classic Audrey Hepburn film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a New York girl simply looking to have fun with no strings attached nor distractions that prevent her from living that life.

While June appears to be more levelheaded than her unscrupulous counterpart, Chloe inevitably exerts as much influence over her roommate as June does on Chloe. Just as Chloe slowly develops “feelings” that make her more human, June slowly begins to break away from her small town roots and inhibitions. The glamour of New York City appeals to the Indiana native, and Chloe is the perfect guide to lead one through the glitz of the Big Apple’s nightlife. Excessive drinking, hanging out with celebrities in VIP sections of trendy nightclubs, casual sex and even using people for financial gain all inevitably seep into the DNA of June. She ultimately feels guilty after each of these forays into the world of Chloe and washes away her sins by attending a Korean Baptist Church, but the aftereffects remain nonetheless.

Former Dawson’s Creek star James Van Der Beek rounds out the main cast as former Dawson’s Creek star James Van Der Beek, a close friend of Chloe. Following a tradition that began with Jack Benny in the 1940s and 50s, perfected by stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld and continues with Matt Leblanc on the HBO comedy Episodes, Van Der Beek portrays an exaggerated version of himself on Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23. More significantly, this fictitious James Van Der Beek is the ultimate celebrity, self-centered and driven by the need for adulation and respect as an artist outside from his portrayal of Dawson Leery in the 1990s. The clichés of celebrity status abound within the mini-narratives that center on Van Der Beek, from his reaction to the release of a sex tape to his drive to emerge victorious on Dancing with the Stars—or at least secure a larger dressing room than opponent Dean Cain.

Although the main storyline of Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 makes the series more suitable for the likes of FX than network television, the ABC drama also contains similarities with the animated comedies of FOX. Like The Simpsons and Family Guy, the plots of Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 often fall into the realm of the absurd, while quick edits and cutaways follow the pattern of those shows as well. Such comparisons no doubt stem from the background of creator Nahnatchka Khan, who previously served as executive producer on American Dad. Having cut her teeth under the tutelage of Seth MacFarlane, Khan brings the same structure and insensibilities to Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 as the classic Sunday night line-up of the FOX network, making the series a live-action version of an animated sitcom.

In the end, it matters not whether Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 is a traditional comedy, cutting-edge cable channel endeavor or even a distant cousin of Family Guy—all that matters is the comedy itself. The “situation” of the sitcom indeed delivers, regardless of whether it focusses on The Odd Couple pairing of June and Chloe, the Seinfeld-like exploration of a fictitious James Van Der Beek, the endless schemes of the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or even the cartoonish nature of its plots. As for the comedy, it is both fresh and original and likewise a conglomeration of the aforementioned comedies of the past. It makes no difference if Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 is on ABC or FX or FOX—it’s a television show that can be trusted to make one laugh.

And that’s what matters most.

Anthony Letizia

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