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Work It: Say No to the Dress

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You do not need me to tell you that Work It, ABC’s new sitcom in which two unemployed, burly men squeeze themselves into women’s clothing to get jobs as pharmaceutical representatives, is a dumb TV show. The question is: is it good dumb, or bad dumb? A good dumb show would embrace the absurdity of its premise, find a distinctive, who-cares voice and find ways to tweak one of the world’s oldest comic setups. A bad dumb show would dutifully, almost wearily resign itself to being a delivery device for guys-in-dresses jokes, serving up clichéd characters and sight gags you can see coming as if they were 6′-3″ and wearing high heels.

I would love to surprise you and announce that Work It is a good dumb show, but my conclusion is sadly as predictable as this sitcom: Work It is bad dumb, memorably bad dumb, the kind of bad dumb show you will use in years to come as a benchmark for other bad sitcoms.

But Work It is not a bad sitcom because it involves men dressing up in drag, an honored tradition. (Here we need to distinguish comedies in which characters dress in drag, like Bosom Buddies, Tootsie or Some Like It Hot, from performances in which actors dress in drag, as in Monty Python or the Elizabethan theater.) You can buy a crazy premise in a sitcom if you can buy the characters; Bosom Buddies, punch line though it may now be, was actually a pretty decent comedy because Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari made Kip and Henry appealing, distinctive people.

The two leads in Work It, on the other hand—Lee (Ben Koldyke) and Angel (Prison Break’s Amaury Nolasco)—are more devices than people, driven entirely by the show’s questionable premise: that it’s a hard world for a man’s man to make a living in anymore. The two lost their jobs at Pontiac—a salesman and mechanic, doing men’s work with men’s machines—when the company went under, and now find themselves victims of a “mancession,” in which traditionally male jobs are disappearing. (The pair have a buddy, played by John Caparulo, whose apparent sole purpose is to repeatedly restate this idea.) It’s all of a piece with ABC’s manxiety theme this season (with Last Man Standing and the late Man Up!) of convincing men that their penises are in danger from a feminized world—a really bizarre message, by the way, from the major network whose dramas most assiduously court women.

MORE: High Manxiety

When Lee visits the doctor for a physical he can’t afford, he overhears a woman showing off a new bracelet she bought with money from her job at a booming pharma company. The catch: her department only hires women, the better to sell drugs to horndog male doctors. (OK, there at least the ABC connection makes sense, if only because of the popularity of pharma reps on past seasons of The Bachelor.) So Lee puts on his wife’s dress, gets the job, and soon brings aboard his buddy Angel. Where Bosom Buddies’ Kip and Henry had to become “Buffy and Hildy” to stay in their all-female building, Lee and Angel fortuitously have gender-neutral names, as if God put them on this Earth with the intention of someday having their lives become a cornball drag comedy.

This is the kind of premise that can get ugly and mean-spirited, if you don’t handle it right. Work It does not handle it right. The show already sets up the premise that Lee and Angel, as underappreciated men, can walk in to the company and easily show up their female coworkers. But Work It further stacks the deck by making their colleagues bitches (a sharky sales rep played, sadly, by Lost’s Rebecca Mader), ditzy (a blonde party girl) or nuts (a single mom who I suppose is bonkers because she doesn’t have a man, or vice versa). And when Angel impresses the boss by fixing her car, they’re all puzzled as to where she learned to do that. Because they don’t teach auto repair in Girl School!

When you premise a show on the idea that an office of women is being taken in by two hulking men in obvious drag (much more so than the more lithe Hanks and Scolari), you’ve already established them as clueless on some level. The surprising—and more potentially funny—thing is to build up their characters and their competence. As it is, Fox’s New Girl does far more interesting man-in-a-competitive-female-office work in its Schmidt subplot than Work It does in its main plot.

One worthwhile thing that Work It tries to do is to ground the premise in real stakes and the real world: for a few minutes at the outset of the pilot, you get a sense that it’s been really hard on Lee’s family to lose his income for a year. But that quickly gets lost in a cringe-y “My Humps” drag montage and a trite lessons-learned subplot in which working with women helps Lee appreciate his long-suffering wife.

And maybe the biggest factor undermining Work It—which like most midseason pilots was first shot last spring—is that its relentlessly hammered premise is already dated and bogus: the “mancession” was a bit of an old trend already when ABC picked up the show, and as it turns out, men have recovered far more of the jobs lost in the recession than women have. If Work It seems late to the recession party as it is, I can only imagine how it will sustain itself if the economy ever goes into a strong recovery.

Of course, I couldn’t blame the show’s creators for giving it a premise that will be tough to sustain over multiple seasons, because I’m guessing they had a hard time believing the pilot would actually be picked up by ABC in the first place. But it was, and if you watch Work It tonight, you’ll realize that that is the most implausible thing about this show by far.