Home a bit earlier than anticipated last night and facing the long wait until Smash's big peanut episode at 10pm, we found ourselves deciding to watch the hour-long first season finale of 2 Broke Girls, that sitcom all about Brooklyn living in the Great Recession that, back when we watched its first couple of episodes in the fall, got a lot of things wrong. Well, in some ways it's satisfying to report that the show has gotten even worse, because it means we were right to stop watching all those months ago, but in another way it's annoying because it means we spent an hour of our lives watching something really terrible last night.
The show's problems back in September were myriad, among them its groan-inducingly crass sex jokes, its bizarrely retro peddling in dumb ethnic stereotypes, and its off-kilter timing — there was no rhythm or pacing to the show, Friends was a Mozart symphony in comparison. Apparently those problems were not addressed and so merely compounded over the course of the season, with last night's lurchingly long episode giving us two tired jokes about "balls" (they were going to a costume ball, but obviously balls are also private parts that boys have) right in a row, because one balls joke simply wouldn't do. So we can put a check in the lamely inartistic sex joke column. And we got to see the greasy, kinda sleazy Eastern European diner chef, the somewhat mincing Asian diner owner whose shortness is a constant joke, and the jazz-talkin' old black guy who jokes about drugs and drinks from a bottle on the street, all of whom are regular cast members and yet play like barely drawn, throwaway characters from some old 1950s sketch show. So that nonsense has apparently been going on pretty consistently this whole time. And the show still feels like driving a stick shift up a particularly steep hill, all sudden stops and starts and jerky movements. Kat Dennings in particular is just not an adept multi-camera sitcom actress — her timing is off, she doesn't hold for audience laughter well, she seems uncomfortable under all the bright lights. It's bad. The whole show is a mess! When Martha Stewart, guest starring in one scene, is sincerely the funniest thing in your hour-long sitcom episode, you've got a problem.
It's also thematically just not in good shape. We foolishly thought that over the course of an entire season, the show's ideas about who "hipsters" are and what "Brooklyn" is and what "being broke" means might evolve and develop. And yet, nope. Nope, last night's episode opened with a joke about steampunk that featured a guy dressed like Kenneth Branagh in Wild Wild West typing on an old typewriter at the diner. Which would have been fine — silly over-the-top jokes are not themselves a problem — if only the show hadn't clearly fancied itself so knowing, so disdainful of current trying-too-hard trends throughout the scene. Well, hate to say it guys, but ya don't know nothing, and you're not actually making any relevant cultural commentary whatsoever, so maybe can it with all the acidic snark. A silly scene where a guy thinks he's being steampunk but is just in some ridiculous costume is fine! But then to have Kat Dennings' monstrously mean, unlikable character come over and rip on him for three minutes and expect us to side with her is just an egregious misreading of the inherent tone of the scene. You want people to nod knowingly at the annoying, pretentious subcultures of modern urban America, fine. Get them right then. Be accurate and exact. Don't throw some cartoon up there and then have Kat Dennings scream at it for an entire scene and expect people to congratulate you for your cultural correctness. It doesn't work that way.
It's weird that 2 Broke Girls has so much directly in common with HBO's Girls. Both are about young women living in Brooklyn on tight budgets, trying to figure out what they're doing with their lives while navigating a frustrating but also kind of exciting world of poseurs and wannabes. And yet the two could not be more different despite their fundamental similarities. Girls has gotten a lot of flack for various things, some of it earned, some of it a little (or a lot) seeming like vindictive overreaching, but when held up against its thematic sister, it seems almost heaven-sent, a blessedly smart show about real(ish) human beings in a real place saying real things and being funny while they do it. Held next to Girls, 2 Broke Girls is a garish, loud Kabuki performance, something so discordant and ugly and dreadfully unfunny that, in its Brooklyn youth-y context, it seems like some kind of Bushwick anti-art performance piece. "It's supposed to be hideous," I can almost hear some character on Girls saying while nodding his head and watching the 2 Broke Girls cast flail around some Bushwick warehouse. "It's like Brecht or something," says his friend. Maybe in its next season, 2 Broke Girls should go meta like that, become a new kind of John Waters-y ugly for the sake of ugly sort of thing. Instead of, y'know, focusing on strained jokes about genitals and how haha ethnics are weird, all while we supposedly root for the success of a cupcake business. (Cupcakes?? It's 2012, guys. Could you please at least send one of your writers to come live in New York for the summer to see what is actually happening here rather than cobbling together a vision of the city from a trip one of you took in 2005? Sheesh.) Embrace the stark brutality of your vision, 2 Broke Girls! Become an art project. Because as a sitcom... Well, ya broke.