Whitney Cummings is a comedienne familiar from Comedy Central roasts, where she disguises passable sass as cutting wit and from Chelsea Lately, where she helps the hostess take out the tabloid trash with practiced invective. She hops through crowd-pleasing stand-up routines about love and sex—gentle observations roughly stated—that season a rom-com worldview with slight salt. She is attractive in a sharp, perky-glam way that can get other women annoyed that she’s considered good-looking. And now she has created two new TV shows, each an old-school three-camera sitcom. “Whitney is taped in front of a live studio audience,” she says in voice-over at the top of the lesser of them, adding, “You got it.” Well, isn’t she fresh? And isn’t that stale. Watching Whitney (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET) is a bit like participating in a séance. It often seems that the traditional sitcom has died and you are communing with its angry ghost. The show clangs with musty setups and rattles with hoary material, while the viewer supplies agonized moans. Here, Whitney Cummings plays Whitney Cummings, a thirtysomething photographer wrestling with all the usual old relationship issues, plus a few post-Apatovian new ones. The character is heavily fictionalized, but the characterization is a featherweight. Definitively not an actor—not even a bad actor—Cummings seems abashed and ironic at various points, holding the performance at arm’s length or within air quotes, as if the corniness of the proceedings were central to the joke. After three whole years of dating, Whitney and her scruffy live-in boyfriend Alex (played by Chris D’Elia) are both combating fatigue and deciding whether to get seriously serious. Naturally, their attendance at a wedding touches off an attack of introspection, and their attendant lords and ladies who constitute their group of friends are there to provide guidance, support, and flat wisecracks. The cohort includes a recently divorced lush, an obnoxiously effusive kissy-faced couple, and a libidinous cop named Mark. Something about the cruddy conventionalism of Whitney’s setting really makes Mark’s bad horndog lines sparkle, as when, at the wedding, he licks his chops over the bridesmaids: “Someone’s going on a ride-along tonight … on my face.”Our heroine is rather less randy, and the central scene of the Whitney pilot concerns her effort to reheat a sex life that has reached a cryogenic temperature. To spice things up, Whitney gets herself a naughty nurse outfit, with the little white cap and frilly red knickers, and she surprises Alex with a frisky show of medical-care coquetry, pouting that he needs to check in for an appointment. Committing to the role-playing, she establishes that preliminaries will involve his filling out a lot of paperwork, and you steel yourself to witness a hardcore S&M scene involving health-insurance bureaucracy. But, no, Alex, racing to the boudoir with his trousers at his knees, slips and falls and sustains a concussion, and the sassy black nurse at the hospital denies Whitney’s attempts to follow her beau into the ER: “You either married or you not.” The studio audience receives a little lesson, if that’s what it is, about commitment. There is a peculiar flavor to this cheese. If you caught a snippet of Whitney unawares, you would be forgiven for assuming that it’s one of those shows-within-a-show that exists to caricature bad television. By contrast, 2 Broke Girls (CBS, debuts Monday at 9:30 p.m. ET), created by Cummings and Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King, is a well-rounded square show—obvious and earnest, warm and energetic. It has the decency to treat the audience and the genre with some respect, and the lead actors (Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs) sell their performances (as an odd couple of diner-waitress roommates in Brooklyn) with considerable zest. I’d hate to give the impression that 2 Broke Girls is half as good as Alice, but its greasy-spoon spunk is regularly palatable, good for a cheap chuckle. Dennings plays Max, a congenitally cynical employee of a restaurant in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, a situation enabling the program to jest about “hipsters” and drop the names of indie-rock bands. Behrs plays Caroline, her newest colleague, a Park Avenue princess impoverished after her father was convicted of perpetrating a Madoff-type swindle. Together, they sling hash and trade insults and learn to trust. They hatch a plan to save money to open a cupcake shop, an indication of where the Cummings’ girlie-girl heart is. She and her writers relish their politically incorrect lines a bit much, frantic to flaunt their edginess in offering jokes at the expense of Temple Grandin, Stephen Hawking *, and sexual-assault victims. But they are sweethearts under the skin, captains of a happily bland ship sailing placid sitcom seas.
Correction, Sept. 16, 2011: This piece originally misspelled the first name of Stephen Hawking. (Return to the corrected sentence.)