Several shows inaccurately caricature the borough as a squalid dumping ground for unfortunates
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.
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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.
To be fair, the borough isn't always portrayed as the stomping ground of the downtrodden. The upper-middle class Huxtables lived on an elegant block, but could hardly be described as hip. (Although, on the other hand, they did know an awful lot of jazz musicians.) The HBO series Bored to Death traverses many Brooklyn neighborhoods, from upscale Brooklyn Heights to grittier Coney Island. The borough has served as the setting for mumblecore opuses like Puffy Chair and 2005's Mutual Appreciation, which seek to capture the lives of the young and aimless in a more authentic way.
To live in actual Brooklyn—or at least in a certain chunk of Brooklyn—is to feel at times that you are living in a stereotype-affirming nexus of urban cool. When I first moved here about a year ago, I just assumed that everyone I passed on the street was in a band I'd maybe heard of. Its neighborhoods of gentile brownstones house a pantheon of modern literary talent, including Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jennifer Egan. Its flea markets and coffee shops teem with marginally employed MFA grads. (An informal survey of my own Brooklyn coffee shop reveals no less than three people working on novels, and one man shopping for bowler hats online.) But even newsman Brian Williams seems to have a better grasp on what makes Brooklyn tick (flash artisanal markets!) than the writers of 2 Broke Girls.
There is humor to be drawn from a certain specificity of place. Portlandia is equal parts mocking and affectionate in its portrayal of that city's gentle vegans and feminist bookstore owners. Parks and Recreation populates its fictional setting of Pawnee, Indiana with such well drawn characters that it feels like a real town. But rather than mining the cultural shifts and colorful personalities of its changing neighborhood for comedy, 2 Broke Girls instead opts instead for lame generalizations and disparaging the entire borough as a squalid, smelly dumping ground for unfortunates. The time certainly seems ripe for a show about young dreamers in New York who don't live in ridiculously oversized apartments, and who ride the subway and interact with people from a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds—things most New Yorkers of both high and low means must do on a regular basis whether they like it or not. But for all of 2 Broke Girls' careful calculations, it's absolutely nowhere.
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