Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review: Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23

Krysten Ritter and James Van Der Beek in ABC's Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23.

The unfortunately titled Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, which takes over Happy Endings' time slot this Wednesday at 9:30, has some big shoes to fill. Happy Endings may have begun as a somewhat uneven Friends clone, but it grew into something wonderful, and the sitcom's second season was one of the most consistently funny series on TV this year.

Apartment 23's first two episodes, which are currently available on Hulu and ABC.com in advance of Wednesday's premiere, don't quite fill the hole that Happy Endings left in the schedule (and in my heart), but the show certainly has potential. The show may have a very slight premise - at this point, the plotting is very secondary to the jokes - but it has two fascinating characters at its core: titular bitch Chloe (Krysten Ritter) and a wonderfully smarmy, self-obsessed James Van Der Beek (played, in a spectacular piece of casting, by... James Van Der Beek.)

The series is written as if it centers on June (Dreama Walker), an idealistic Midwesterner who moves to New York for a job only to find out that her company has gone under, leaving her unemployed and homeless (she had been living in a company apartment). Really, though, the show is all about Chloe. June meets the bitch while looking for a place to live, and naively signs a lease and gives Chloe a security deposit. She finds out later that Chloe likes to find young, innocent New York transplants, get them to give her a hefty security deposit, and then scare then away and keep the money.

Ritter is a talented comedic actress, and Chloe is a twisted, fascinating character. She works because Ritter plays her not as a complete crazy person, but as a person who could maybe be a good friend if she was more empathetic, had a better understanding of human relationships, or simply didn't delight so much in the suffering of others. By the end of the episode, June and Dreama have become... not friends, exactly, but something like comrades. This progression feels a little forced, but it has to happen for the show to continue, and the relationship between the two is wonderfully spiky; you get the idea that the women will always have one another's backs, unless they kill each other first.

Chloe is also best friends with an ex boyfriend of hers, who just happens to be James Van Der Beek or, as she calle him, "The Beek from the Creek." Van Der Beek does a wonderful job of playing an outsized, womanizing, overly dramatic (one hopes) version of himself; a moment when he seduces a girl by putting on a flannel shirt and blasting "I Don't Want To Wait" is hysterically funny, and gets even better when it's revealed that he has not one, but two girls in his apartment.

The weak link in the first episode is June. Although she gets a few good moments - like when she figures out Chloe's scheme, and sells all her furniture as revenge - she's a bit too much of a corn-fed Midwestern stereotype to make sense in the company of the uniquely nasty Chloe and the self-obsessed Van Der Beek. The second (and superior) episode "Daddy's Girl" gives June more to work with, and we start to see that underneath the happy optimist lies a woman who is so goal-oriented that she starts to crack when things don't go according to her meticulous plan. It's a start, but the character has a long way to go before she can hope to compete with Chloe.

The other problem with Apartment 23 is the plotting, or lack thereof. The first episode is essentially just a string of marginally related incidents, and much of the half-hour run time is dedicated to setting up the premise, which doesn't leave room for a whole lot of jokes. The second episode is an improvement, but it still feels a little like the writers wrote a storyline, realized they had seven minutes left to fill, and just threw in a couple scenes that didn't really add anything to the story.

The show also boasts a roster of off-kilter supporting characters, some of whom work better than others. Mark (played by Eric Andre, whose appearance and mannerisms are weirdly reminiscent of Andy Samberg), a former employee of the mortgage company that brought June to New York and now a barista at a local coffee shop, is entertaining, as is Eli (Michael Blaiklock), the pervert who lives next door to June and Chloe and spends a lot of time offering off-color commentary through the kitchen window. Ray Ford's Luther, personal tailor/assistant to Van Der Beek, is funny enough in his brief appearance, but one senses that his not-so-hidden lust for his employer might get tiring fairly quickly. And Liza Lapira's Robin, a possible stalker who is obsessed with Chloe after falling victim to her roommate scheme, is just baffling.

Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is worth a shot, if only for the sake of Ritter's excellent performance and Van Der Beek's self-deprecating presence. If the show really wants to go toe-to-toe with Happy Endings, however, it needs to define June's character, create actual plots rather than simply throw out vaguely defined ideas for gags, and figure out the supporting characters. And some cameos by Van Der Beek's Creek costars wouldn't be unwelcome; I bet Joshua Jackson or Michelle Williams would love to drop by.

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