In trying to make any sense of ABC’s duuuuummmmb new Tuesday night sitcom, “Work It,” it’s quite tempting to rummage through centuries of examples that might help us deconstruct modern civilization’s endless fixation for putting a man in a dress for comic effect. But for the purposes of this particular bit of TV criticism, we needn’t travel any further back than 1980, when Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari played “Bosom Buddies.” In an unseemly display of uncredited
closet-raiding, “Work It” is just “Bosom Buddies” with a smokier eye.
Whether you’re talking about Milton Berle, Bugs Bunny or the ancient Greeks, bad drag is one of the oldest jokes around, and there is some debate about whether it works the way it used to, thanks mainly to the tireless efforts of professional drag queens, who’ve upped the game considerably, and proponents of transgender rights, who’ve had it with pop culture’s mockery and bias.
Now a man wearing a dress is just a regressive bit of vaudeville that can, from a certain view, seem as outdated as blackface.
“Work It” attempts — badly — to translate a subset of America’s present unemployment woes, particularly as those statistics apply to jobless men. Amid a so-called “mancession,” the numbers could suggest a gender imbalance that favors women.
Ben Koldyke plays Lee Standish, a husband and father in St. Louis who was once a top salesman at a Pontiac dealership, until Pontiac went kaput during the GM bailout. With no luck on the job search, he hears that a pharmaceutical giant is hiring sales reps. However: “We’re only looking for girls,” another sales rep tells Lee.
“Why?” he asks.
“Well, we’ve had some guys [as salesmen],” she says, “but the doctors seem to want to nail them less.”
Rather than file an EEOC complaint (or point out that not all doctors are men), Lee’s natural response is to raid his wife’s closet and visit his local MAC counter. Voila — awkward transformation. With “her” impeccable sales résumé, Lady Lee gets the pharmaceutical sales job.
The laughs could not be thinner. The show’s comedy is predicated on the fact that none of Lee’s female co-workers seem able to discern the obvious (she’s a man, baby), probably because they are too busy living down to every lame stereotype associated with office women, up to and including the itty-bitty salads they nibble at lunch. As an actor, Koldyke is terrible at being a woman, but he’s also not very entertaining as a man. He’s a drawing of a man wearing women’s clothing.
Fortunately — which also means unfortunately — there’s Angel Ortiz (played by Amaury Nolasco), Lee’s bosom bud, who used to work as a mechanic in the Pontiac service department. Lee tells Angel his new secret and, soon enough, Angel puts on a skirt and gets a sales-rep job, too — and his drag is somehow just a little bit better than Lee’s, and an immeasurable fraction more funny, but that still doesn’t do much to give the show spark.
Certainly we could all find something better to watch, but that’s also what I thought about Tim Allen’s creaky “Last Man Standing,” which is also airing on ABC Tuesday nights. It, too, is bloated with outdated sitcom humor about the sexes, and it turned out to be a relative ratings smash.
I wish I could regard “Work It” as harmless fun for the viewers who can stand to subject themselves to it, but there are other issues for us all to think about here. Have you looked at television lately? It’s full of men submitting to various emasculations — on sitcoms, in dramadies, on beer commercials — but it’s also lousy with a retro sense of sexism against women. “Work It” repeatedly underlines an offensive notion that nothing could be more humiliating for today’s man than to have to become a woman.
There’s also another issue afoot, having to do with actual men who desire to live as women. We still have a long way to go in our culture when it comes to accepting the rights of those who question or alter their birth gender, and who knows if we’ll all ever arrive at the same page on this.
But now, even the word “trans” (and the more slangy “tranny”) has become a loaded gun in mass media, with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) issuing public rebukes to those who throw the word “tranny” and “trans” around in off-the-cuff fun. These words vernacularly rocketed forward about four years ago, when a “Project Runway” contestant started saying “tranny” and “hot tranny mess” as a way to express his displeasure at bad fashion.
After years of tranny-this and tranny-that, the word police struck back on behalf of the transgendered community. Now, even well-meaning gay and gay-friendly celebs (Neil Patrick Harris, Kelly Osbourne and the writers of “Glee,” to name but a few) are lectured by GLAAD and others about the improper use of the T-word.
GLAAD has called on ABC to pre-cancel “Work It,” because, as the organization’s acting president, Mike Thompson, said in press release, “Transphobia is still all too prevalent in our society, and this show will only contribute to it. It will reinforce the mistaken belief that transgender women are simply ‘men pretending to be women,’ and that their efforts to live their lives authentically as women are a form of lying or deception.”
I can sympathize with GLAAD up to a point (and I’m all for the concept of canceling a show before it stinks up the schedule) but not to this particular point. “Work It” doesn’t need to be canceled for its insensitivity so much as it needs to be canceled for its vapidity and lack of originality. There may be some humor left in cross-dressing comedy, but it would have to be done with nuance and sharp wit — and the freedom to throw around a word like “tranny” if need be.
When I was in high school, the highest form of assembly humor was to tart up the football players in cheerleader uniforms and lipstick and have them flounce around the stage. Curiously, nobody laughed harder at this than the girls. Any PhD candidate in anthropology would recognize and duly footnote such an array of gender bugaboos, whether they are observed in an auditorium or in a remote jungle.
Or on television. Bad drag says so much about men and women, and often what it says isn’t flattering to our mutual intelligence. “Work It” is a big step back, aimed at a thoroughly brain-dead audience.
(30 minutes) premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.