Hey, have you been needing a “get out of jail free” card for all of those times you’re walking around, making assumptions about people based on their race and/or for all of those times your popular television sitcom has done that very thing and attracted the ire of critics and diehard fans of the medium? Well, Michael Patrick King, co-creator and executive producer of 2 Broke Girls has the answer for you: Just say that you’re gay and if you make fun of your fellow gay people every once in a great while, that gives you license to have one of your main characters be a tiny Asian man with a stereotypical accent, whom the other characters make fun of for not being able to drive.
Sadly, King’s gambit didn’t work, as the 2 Broke Girls session at the Television Critics Association press tour was one of the most uncomfortable in recent memory (and one of the most uncomfortable ever, according to those in the room with longer memories than ours). That it came after two straight, largely sedate panels involving Chuck Lorre—and one involving the much-in-the-news Ashton Kutcher—and right before a charming panel about an incredibly divisive (at least within the critical community) season of How I Met Your Mother made the tension of the panel—which at one point involved King implying one of the reporters had sexual problems because he was Irish and another critic getting into a discussion with Kat Dennings about facials—all the more remarkable.
Now, King spewed a lot of this gibberish back at summer TCA—though he managed to refrain from mocking the Irish at that particular soiree—but it was undercut by a promise from the show’s other creator—Whitney Cummings, for those of you playing along at home—that the supporting characters would be dimensionalized in the episodes to come. That’s fairly typical for TV comedies, which usually start with stereotypes of one form or another and then slowly build them out over the course of the first season. Plus, Cummings’ discussion of the back-story of one of the particularly egregious supporting characters (the aforementioned Asian-accent-bearing Korean immigrant Han) suggested that she and King really had thought out who these people were beyond the surface level. But Cummings, of course, is trapped on her own awful sitcom, leaving the show in the hands of King, who’s apparently never had to talk to someone of another race since 1985, given his love for deploying outdated stereotypes on the show. Would Cummings have saved the show if she stuck with it? Probably not. But it’s almost certain she wouldn’t have greeted this morning’s session with the equivalent of “Farty fart fart fart mcfarterton,” which was King’s contribution.
In the 13 episodes broadcast since that summer press tour, the show hasn’t bothered to do much with the supporting characters on the show, beyond marching them out every so often to remind viewers that they’re awful stereotypes. At times, the show has minimalized them to the point that they seem like guest stars. This makes sense, since the central pairing of the show—Kat Dennings’ Max and Beth Behrs’ Caroline—is a strong one that’s grown and evolved in interesting ways over the course of a season. When you’re making TV, you learn what works and what doesn’t while doing so, and pretty much everyone would have forgiven King and all involved if they had simply said, “We really liked what Kat and Beth were doing, and we wrote to that. Now, we’re going to work on the supporting characters.”
It would have been bullshit. More importantly, we all would have known it was bullshit. (Over the course of 13 episodes, King and his writers should have been able to suggest at least once that someone other than Max and Caroline was a three-dimensional character.) But it would have been the kind of bullshit that would let the session move on to other things, like the vastly important fate of Chestnut the fictional horse or just how “sassy” the two women at the show’s center are (an actual question). Critics would have continued to tut-tut about King not living up to his promises, the show would have continued to be a top 10 hit, and King would have continued to swim in a giant pit of money. (During the post-press conference scrum, according to those in it, King was asked about Marc Cherry saying he’d never send the cast of Desperate Housewives to Dubai and replied by saying that Sex And The City 2 had made $500 million at the box office. An exemplar of quality indeed!)
But, of course, King’s got a hit. The kinds of people who care about this shit are a decided minority, in this case at least, and he doesn’t really need to be nice to reporters. Most producers—again, see Chuck Lorre—are because even though all press is good press, it never hurts to have actual good press. So when the session immediately began with a rather innocuous question about the show’s racial stereotypes—a perfect opportunity for King to lay out the bullshit outlined above—he instead doubled down on how “ballsy” the show was (the actual word he used to describe the show’s humor; in fact, here's the actual quote: "I think our show is a big, ballsy comedy, but it has a bigger heart than it has balls"). Things proceeded to get worse from there.
King’s primary conflict came with a reporter—the aforementioned one with the Irish surname—who asked him about Nina Tassler’s earlier talk about how she’d asked King to “dimensionalize” the supporting characters on the show. King flatly denied this had happened, thus suggesting at least one of the two was lying, before returning to praising himself and the show for having the courage to employ people who weren’t white and force them to dance in humiliating ways. (Okay, I added that last bit about the dancing.) The questions quickly switched to the show’s crude sense of humor—which has included multiple uses of the word “vagina” and at least one gag about anal sex—which is unusual for a broadcast network (but also probably behind much of the show’s success, if the ongoing triumph of Two And A Half Men is any indication). King’s defense for much of this was that the show was “classy dirty.” He said that people instinctively lean away from jokes they find distasteful, but the show’s good ratings suggest that’s not happening. “Week after week, people are leaning in to 2 Broke Girls, so there's something there that they feel okay about,” he said.
Which, fine. If the crude jokes were the only problem with the show, we could all have a fun conversation about where the line is on network TV, and most of you (and, honestly, me) would probably side with King in terms of pushing the envelope on broadcast content. But the questions kept returning to those supporting characters, and King kept getting testier and testier. After one critic asked him about Han, he claimed to be moving away from the racial humor regarding the walking, talking offensive stereotype. “In the last three episodes, we haven't made an Asian joke. We've only made short jokes,” he said. But then he couldn’t promise to never make another joke based on Han’s race. Nor should he have to! Racial humor has a place in comedy, but it requires people with a certain amount of skill at deploying it. King—who apparently perpetually exists at a Friars’ Club in 1952—doesn’t have that skill, at least as shown in the first 13 episodes of this show. He seems to think racial humor consists entirely of having a stereotype show up, portraying it in the most obnoxious way possible, then having everybody make fun of it. (Later, King expressed his sadness about the tone of the questions, saying, “I’m surprised the questions are not about fun.” Aren’t we all, Michael?) King's defense for the sexual humor (that it's 2012, and we all need to loosen up or whatever) just doesn't track with his defense for the racial humor, which is that the show needs to deal with race in the least nuanced terms possible. It's 2012, so we should all be ready to accept that Ukrainians are big, smelly sex fiends who come on to women in the least subtle way possible?
“We seem to be offending people with the use of words,” King said, apparently not realizing that his only African American character is an aging hepcat who has sex with lots of older white women (and is an utter waste of Garrett Morris). And that was the cue for the critic asking him about Nina Tassler’s earlier quote to read him the exact quote, then his exact words. (“O.M.G.” said Kat Dennings at this point—seriously—apparently hoping she could defuse the tension entirely by being Kat Dennings.) And then King—who’d earlier testily told this critic that he could rightfully claim that the characters were dimensionalized only five years from now—made fun of him for being Irish and everything went off the rails. After the panel, another critic in the scrum told King that he was sorry things had gotten so tense, but many of us like Behrs and Dennings and wish the rest of the show could be that good. King walked off angrily, in the middle of answering a question posed by A.V. Club contributor Joel Keller about something else, though if he had pointed off into the middle distance and shouted, "Look out, critics! He's Irish!" we might have forgiven him his exit.
Look: Building good television takes time. It requires good faith gestures. No one expects every character on a show—even one with a cast as small as this—to be fully filled-in this early in a show’s run. But every time King makes a good faith gesture to the reality of the show (like eliminating the horse that lived in Max and Caroline’s backyard—though he also said the horse would be back, killing that particular theory), he immediately guts it by returning to the laziest of lazy jokes and doubling down on terrible puns. 2 Broke Girls has so many good elements that making it a good show shouldn’t be hard. Think of what Phil Rosenthal and Mike Royce—two producers with longstanding relationships with CBS—would do with the basic materials of a great cast, an interesting setting, and a provocative premise (one of the few non-tense moments in the panel came when the two stars discussed the show’s ties to the Occupy Wall Street movement)! But that won’t happen with Michael Patrick King at the helm, because Michael Patrick King is a lazy hack who makes an awful television show and doesn’t realize it’s awful because too many people watch it, a lazy hack who thinks he can get away with making fun of all disenfranchised groups by making fun of his own disenfranchised group every so often. Oh well. At least he pulled the wool away from some of our eyes.