I’ve been pretty vocal about the fact that I consider Whitney to be one of the failures of last fall’s boom in television comedies created by women and centered on female characters—it’s been a prime example of the weird spike in deeply irritating supporting sitcom characters, it’s got more men writing its episodes than women, and Whitney Cummings is less appealing as a fictional avatar of herself than she must have been in person to network executives. But the show’s become more likable as it’s gone on. And it’s achieved something rather remarkable in its latest long arc: Whitney may be the only show on television that’s figured out how to handle a bisexual character with clarity and dignity.
I was nervous when Maulik Pancholy left 30 Rock for Whitney. It’s not that Pancholy isn’t a good actor who deserves to play something other than Jack Donaghy’s beleaguered, worshipful assistant. It was that I didn’t think he’d get the opportunity to do much that was interesting on Whitney, where he was part of the grating-friend ensemble, an accountant named Neal locked in a lovey-dovey relationship with a woman named Lily (an increasingly good Zoe Lister Jones). But the show has handed him an enormous slab of red meat: over a series of episodes, Neal and Lily broke off their engagement after it turned out Lily had been lying to Neal about some substantial things. And after their breakup, Neal began seeing a man named Steven he met through work.
In a terrific episode, Whitney handled Neal’s feelings about acknowledging his attractions to men with sensitivity and some of the better humor it’s shown. “There was never an opportunity to explore anything sexual. I mean, we couldn’t even explore cable,” Neal tells Whitney of his conservative family. When he confesses to Alex, Whitney’s long-time boyfriend that “Last night, when you came over, I was kind of on a date,” Alex’s response is entirely nonchalant. “Cool, can I get you a beer?…What, did you want me to offer him an appletini? Don’t be a homophobe, Whit.” And their other friends treat the situation with more investment. “I’m not attracted to all men,” Neal tells crude cop Mark in an effort to reassure him that he won’t get hit on. “You don’t have to be hurtful,” Mark tells him. And when Neal finally confessed to Lily that he’d been avoiding her because “I thought maybe if I waited, I’d have more answers for you…to how this could happen…to what I am,” she reacts with sensitivity—and a surprising level of insight. “You don’t have to be gay or straight, you’re just Neal,” Lily says. “Your sexuality’s fluid. Sometimes, people fall in love with people, not genders.” It might be the first time a sitcom has insisted that our sexual orientation categories aren’t sufficient to describe everyone’s experience, and that makes it rather extraordinary.
And the show hasn’t left it at that. It’s made an ongoing point of showing how Lily and Neal have navigated their post-revelation relationship, going out together, dealing with misperceptions about which one of them men are cruising. The show respects them enough not to make the question of who Neal loves and is attracted do disappear as if it was just an excuse for a Very Special episode. And the plot gave all the characters an opportunity to show off who they are without resorting to unfortunate tics. Neal, and everyone else, got to be fully developed human in a situation with stakes that ranged from re-assesing a friendship to reexamining what you thought your marriage would look like. And that’s worthy of some respect in turn. Whitney may not be my favorite sitcom on the air. But it’s given me a substantial reason to care about where it’s going.