TV Watch: ‘Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23’ — Postmodern Prime-Time?

The footnote-worthy cultural references provide the laughs in this new sitcom.

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The new comedy Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, which premiered last night on ABC, may not be the most comedic show on television—zany yes, laugh-out-loud no—but it may well be the newest. And not because the pilot was seen for the first time just a few hours ago. This is one of the more modern network sitcoms of our time, using cross-media inside jokes in a way that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

At first glance, the plot fits the mold of a show about a small town girl lost in the big city (spoilers ahead). Pretty June (Dreama Walker) comes all the way from Indiana only to discover that the mortgage brokerage firm that hired her and paid for her apartment has gone under. Jobless and homeless, she answers a series of wacky roommate-wanted ads before finding what appears to be the perfect place, an unrealistically nice apartment with someone who seems like a great flat-mate. The roommate-seeker, Chloe (Krysten Ritter), even serves snacks. The apartment number, of course, is 23, and, yes, Chloe is indeed a B—- (bitch), concocting a scheme to secure first and last month’s rent and then act like such a lunatic—walking around naked, stealing, invading privacy—that the roommate cuts and runs. Thus begins a brief war in which June retaliates by selling Chloe’s ottoman—a piece of furniture that just so happens to contain a sizable inventory of Chinese energy pills that Chloe sells via the black market. It is through retrieving the ottoman that the two women bond, that Chloe decides to allow June to stay, and that a bizarre and unstable friendship is established, setting up the broader arc for the series.

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Not that you want to be friends with either of them. It only takes one episode to realize that June’s naivety can become a bit pathetic, and Chloe pulls some stunts that skew beyond bizarro to out-right nasty (like getting a 13-year-old drunk and skipping out on a bar tab). Shows like The Office learned the hard way that audiences, at least in the U.S., like a friendly face, and it will be interesting to see whether Don’t Trust the B—- loses a little of that bitchiness as the season moves forward.

But that’s hardly the most interesting aspect of the series. The important part, you see, is that Chloe’s best friend is James Van Der Beek and that he is played by, well, James Van Der Beek. Van Der Beek pops in and out for laughs, but even though he scored some funny moments in the pilot—including the funniest bit of the evening, involving a Vietnamese energy-drink ad that includes the line “Dawson is the moon”—the real humor isn’t happening on-screen. Sure, you can watch Don’t Trust the B—- if you’ve missed what Van Der Beek has been up to lately, but you won’t get the in-jokes. The show seems just fine with that.

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As long as you are vaguely aware that James Van Der Beek played Dawson on Dawson’s Creek, the humor of this fictionalized actor character using that same role to pick up ladies will not be lost on you. However, the real-life Van Der Beek has also spent the last few years cultivating a meme-based persona (a self-referential jerk of the type he plays here) that exists completely outside of both Dawson’s Creek and Apartment 23. There are no references on the show to all that extra stuff—the infamous Crying Dawson animated GIF, Van Der Beek envisioning Dawson un-Creeked, as he did in Scary Movie, the Funny or Die Vandermemes—but viewers who are familiar with the viral oeuvre will find an extra layer of humor in all that happens here. It’s no coincidence that Van Der Beek was chosen to play this particular actor-playing-himself. He is becoming the ouroboros, and while expert knowledge isn’t necessary to follow the plot of Don’t Trust the B—-, the show is nowhere near as impressive if you can’t recognize that the tail in the snake’s mouth is, in fact, his own.

Don’t Trust the B—- is certainly not the first show to prefer its watchers to have some cultural literacy outside its prime-time slot, but it may be the first to risk turning off those viewers who don’t get every bit of background irony. Sometimes intricate cultural references can work splendidly. The Wasteland did it quite well. But Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 pushes the envelope to a new extreme, betting the house that James Van Der Beek’s rabid fan base will tune in every week to see him take the art of self-reference to a whole new level. It’s pretty awesome for now, but the b—- and her roommate will have to up their game for success. One joke does not a sitcom make.