Nothing on TV epitomized the social disruptions of the 1970s like The Odd Couple: Two divorced guys move in together (breakdown of the family), date lots of airline stewardesses (the sexual revolution), and fret about their mopey teenage kids (the generation gap). In 40 years’ time, any of our spaceship-riding descendants who want to understand our current era should watch Don’t Trust the B___ in Apartment 23 (ABC, Tuesdays at 9:30 ET). The deliciously depraved sitcom, which returns for its second season tonight, reminds viewers that these days a working stiff can’t catch a break: In a world of unpaid internships and crummy coffee-shop jobs, the only way to make it is to scam, cheat, and lie. Better (and more achievable) than career satisfaction: Hanging out with the cool kids.
Those cool kids can be awfully mean, though. Anyone who signs up to be roommates with the mini-skirted menace of the show’s title will discover that Chloe (Krysten Ritter) will steal from her, screw her fiancé on her birthday cake, set her up with a guy without mentioning that he’s her married dad, and generally make life an amazing roller-coaster ride to hell. All those things have happened to June Colburn (Dreama Walker), Chloe’s latest flatmate, a wholesome Midwesterner who moved to New York for a great job on Wall Street on the very day that the company was closed down for bilking its investors. Soon, June found herself a victim of Chloe’s roommate scam: She charms newcomers by boasting about her close personal friendship with Dawson’s Creek alum James Van Der Beek (they used to date, but they weren’t compatible, “genitally speaking—imagine trying to fit a cucumber into a coin purse”), takes their first and last, sells their possessions, and drives them screaming back to the sticks.
But June scammed the scammer, earning Chloe’s grudging respect. In fact, Chloe likes June so much that she she’s taken her under her wing as a protégée. June is still handing out résumés after working extra shifts at It’s Just Beans. But thanks to nights spent in VIP rooms, at vodka launches, and visiting the Beek on the set of Dancing With the Stars, she’s gradually wising up.
Chloe is a Holly Golightly for the modern era. She isn’t ashamed of the sex tape she made with Van Der Beek back when they were dating—“That video of me being rammed by my best friend means the world to me,” she tells June—and she loves being the subject of a series of comic books called Tall Girl, No Panties. She enjoys casual sex, she’s comfortable with her body (Chloe’s naked breakfasts make lots of work for the guy who works ABC’s pixelator), and she turns life into a nonstop, hangover-inducing party. “Why do you like Chloe so much?” June asks Robin, an earlier victim of the roommate scam who now lives down the hall and is obsessed with Chloe. Robin is blunt: “She’s pale, popular. She’s got 4 percent body fat … If I could have one friend like her, everything would be good.”
Chloe really can’t be trusted, though. She has the morals of a pirate, and a bully’s enjoyment of other people’s misery—she’s the kind of person who takes marbles to a runway show just to watch the models fall. (“They’re like giraffes collapsing in the jungle.”) When June decides to sell homemade preserves to pay the rent—a page right out of the 2 Broke Girls’ cupcake-making playbook—Chloe secretly turns the process into June’s Jammin’ Jams, a fetish video and website, because she knows “perverts would pay a lot of money to watch us make it.” Sure, the hidden cameras were an invasion of June’s privacy, but Chloe’s right: These days only a fool builds anything more concrete than a website.
Apartment 23’s creator Nahnatchka Khan spent six seasons as a writer and executive producer on the Seth MacFarlane comedy American Dad!, and her animation roots are visible in Don’t Trust the B___.* It’s an odd mix of the hyperreal—especially June’s worries about her stalled career—and surreal. There’s a pervy neighbor who talks to them through the window, characters are constantly interrupting each other’s interior monologues, and the same kind of amnesia that allows the cartoon universe to give a schoolboy a pet elephant liberates Chloe from the tyranny of consequences. A show that stuck to the rules of logic and credibility couldn’t pull off a storyline from Season 1 in which Chloe claimed that she and June were a lesbian couple so that she could get a foster child to act as her personal assistant during her “busy season” as a nightlife guide during the U.N. General Assembly.
Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan recently suggested that Apartment 23 would work better as an animated show, since “most of the characters are written as loud, one-dimensional types.” Of course, it isn’t the only TV sitcom to veer into cartoon territory—as I wrote back in March, Fox’s Raising Hope is in many ways a live-action version of The Simpsons—and while I agree with Ryan that Chloe’s “occasional forays into human compassion seem forced and out of step with every other way she’s characterized,” I find the tonal variation refreshing. It’s rare that TV characters can genuinely surprise jaded viewers, but Chloe’s depravity shocks me at least once an episode. And without at least one foot in the real world, James Van Der Beek’s self-satirizing portrayal of preening B-list star James Van Der Beek would land with a thud.
If there’s one built-in limitation to Apartment 23, it’s that Chloe—per the title—must always remain a bitch. But in our kleptocratic, recessionary age, what else could she be?
Correction, Oct. 23, 2012: This piece originally misspelled Nahnatchka Khan’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)