I still think 2 Broke Girls is pretty terribly racist. Matthew Moy retains his dreadful accent and lack of anything for which we could plausibly respect the character. Oleg is still nothing but a walking sexual harassment lawsuit. In last night’s episode, when Max asked Caroline, “Which one is your ex? The Asian one? The black one? Just kidding!” the line and the line-reading weren’t nearly precise enough to suggest that Max might be mocking Caroline for only dating rich white dudes, rather than affirming the idea that of course a woman like Caroline would only date white men, because aren’t interracial relationships hilarious! And I don’t know what’s with Sonny Lee and Patrick Walsh, who wrote this episode, but memo to them: bisexual people actually exist, and lines like, “Everyone keeps telling me they can’t decide. It’s like a support group for bisexuals,” don’t make you, or Caroline, who delivered it, seem clever. They just make you seem dumb.
And yet, as much as I want to quit this show, it’s making it hard for me. To back up for a second, almost 15 million people are tuning in to 2 Broke Girls every week, giving the show a pretty incredible platform. And while a lot of that platform’s been spent making jokes about horse excrement (also, last night, mouse poop) and general racism, the show’s spending more time on debt, financial literacy, and considerations of our values around money. And that’s kind of remarkable. A show that’s been remarkably square as it tries to show off its coolness has stumbled into being the closest thing we have to Occupy Wall Street popular culture.
Don’t believe me? Consider last night’s focus on debt and financial literacy. When Caroline makes the mistake of answering the dreaded green phone in the apartment she shares with Max, she learns two things. First, that her roomie has substantial debt. And second, that among those debts is the hole she dug herself into trying to get a degree that would give her a shot at illustrating children’s books. Max, it turns out, is almost the epitome of a We Are the 99 Percent.
And the show didn’t just take Max’s debt and leave it at that. Caroline, who is better the smarter she’s made out to be, points out that Max needs to figure out the interest rates on her credit cards and start seriously paying down her student loan debt because she can’t discharge it in bankruptcy. For a show with that kind of clout to actually explain those useful (and true) facts, and to make a story out of them, is just so profoundly smart and useful even though it seems small. In a television environment where the closest shows come to engaging with the recession is to (very entertainingly) take down rich creeps in the Hamptons via insider trading or to use the fact of a costly mortgage to explain why a family can’t leave a manifestly haunted house, for a popular show to engage with the actual problems that have sent thousands of demonstrators into the streets is bracing.
Even more importantly, the show is launching a stealthy assault on the idea that possessing extreme wealth, no matter how you came to obtain it, is desirable. 2 Broke Girls‘ hipster-bashing can seem behind the curve and resentful of a generation of New Yorkers who came up behind Michael Patrick King and stole his cred. But last night’s episode was also a reasonably incisive parody of the ridiculous things rich people spend money on, including cupcakes (an industry Sex and the City single-handedly jumpstarted) and horse rides. And when Caroline was faced with the ex-boyfriend who dumped her when her father went to prison, Max read her a useful riot act, asking her if she really thought she was a more admirable person when she was luxuriating in unearned wealth.”But now that you support yourself by earning your own money, that’s somehow shameful?” Max challenges Caroline. And of course she’s right.
2 Broke Girls isn’t going to single-handedly upend television’s obsession with wealth, and the networks’ attachment to aspirational programming. But if it manages to make financial responsibility, earning your own money, and paying off your debt seem more admirable than being the 1 percent, it’s making a contribution that shouldn’t be totally dismissed. We should demand that the show’s race and gender politics catch up to its positions on class. Occupy CBS.