What Television Writers Don't Get About Brooklyn

Several shows inaccurately caricature the borough as a squalid dumping ground for unfortunates

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CBS

Of all the new shows that premiered this fall, 2 Broke Girls seemed the most precisely calibrated to tap into the zeitgeist. It features the old-couple pairing of acerbic Brooklyn diner waitress Max (Kat Denning), and former Upper East Side Princess Caroline (Beth Behrs), whose father is indicted in a Bernie Madoff-like scandal (timely). The show sprang from the minds of suddenly ubiquitous comedienne Whitney Cummings and Sex and the City creator Michael Patrick King, who helped craft New York City's image as the place of destiny for upwardly mobile 20 and 30-somethings.

2 Broke Girls does at times seem to be struggling to say something—in a broad, sitcom-y way—about being young in a specific time (now) and a specific place (Williamsburg, Brooklyn). It can't be an accident that the show is set in New York City's most ostentatiously trendy neighborhood. The problem is that 2 Broke Girls doesn't have anything interesting, or new, or—most importantly—funny to say about either of these things.

So far, 2 Broke Girls' main achievement is in projecting an unrelenting disdain for its environs and all the people who inhabit it. A number of critics have called the show to task for its tone-deaf portrayal of minority characters, including an Asian diner owner and a horny Ukrainian cook.The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman wrote recently that, "each week Han's broken English gets played like some sorry minstrel show." But in the show's defense, it's pretty even-handed in its contempt. It seems to want to make the point that everyone in Brooklyn—the gentrifiers, the rich kids, the hipsters, the native residents of varying ethnicities—are all equally deserving of scorn.

In one recent episode about the two broke girls' efforts to get their burgeoning cupcake business off the ground they encounter: a group of obnoxious neighborhood gentrifiers in suits; a dread-locked hipster barista who refuses to buy Max's cupcakes because they "aren't pretty enough;" a pair of Brooklyn-by-way-of-the Jersey Shore Guidettes who run a cupcake decorating class; and a gaggle of gays named Michael who, in a wild subversion of expectations, all display a preternatural gift for cupcake decorating. At the end of the episode, Max decides that pink frosting and rosettes aren't really her thing, and develops her own brand of insult cupcakes. Which, I have to admit, is a pretty clever business model.

For a show that traffics so unabashedly in caricatures, 2 Broke Girls doesn't even get its stereotypes quite right. Everyone knows that that gentrifiers don't come in suits—they come yielding baby bjorns and pilates mats. And the dread-locked barista who rejects Max's cupcakes would be way more concerned with whether they were baked with local, sustainable ingredients that whether they were pretty.

New York City has rarely been depicted realistically on television, but shows usually err on the side of over-glamorizing the experience of living there. (The one time that Carrie Bradshaw encounters street crime in Manhattan, the fashion-forward mugger steals her Manolo Blahniks and Miranda ends up scoring a date with the impossibly attractive detective.) But ever since the days of the Brooklyn-based The Honeymooners, the murky hinterlands outside Manhattan have typically been the province of the decidedly unglamorous. King's anti-Brooklyn bias can be seen in the final season of Sex and the City when Miranda treats a move across the bridge like being cast out of Eden. The Upper East-Siders on Gossip Girl regularly mock erstwhile Brooklynites Dan and Jenny Humphrey as outer borough paupers, despite the fact that they lived in a cavernous Dumbo loft probably somewhere in the vicinity of this humble abode.

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Meghan Lewit is a writer and editor based in New York. She has contributed arts and entertainment coverage to the L.A. Weekly, The Awl, and PopMatters.

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