It says a lot about Work It that the way the show dealt with cross-dressing was so misguided that I didn’t even get around to writing an extremely angry post about the show’s poisonous sexism before it was cancelled due to faith-in-humanity reaffirming low ratings. But every silver lining has its cloud, which in this case were the strong initial ratings for Rob. Whether the latter continues to hold those numbers is a very interesting question, but I think the fate of each of these critically-savaged shows says something about the stories Americans want to here, and what compromises they’re willing to make to them.
I think there’s no question that the impact of the recession on gender and economic power has been important and thought-provoking for a lot of people. If you’ve been a provider, and see that role tied up with your gender, and then lose that role, I imagine you have some thoughts about manhood, womanhood, etc. But I don’t necessarily think the recession set off a gender war. And the wildly aggrieved nature of Work It was sour beyond being interesting or resonant. On the show, Lee, the main character, complains bitterly about how much better his friend Angel is at selling pharmaceuticals in drag, calling her a whore, not that the experience leads him into clarity or sympathy for women who can’t or won’t let a man get a leg over to get a leg up in business. Lee’s toxic brother in law rants endlessly about how women are emasculating men. All three men appear to meet at the bar where they hang out because they want to escape whatever women in their lives, and those women are set up in a way to make that escape possible. They’re wretched people to spend time with, and even worse tools to get at the painful truths of the American economy through humor.
Rob, on the other hand, is not a good show either. The “shucks-I’m-sodomizing-Grandma” scene in the pilot will justly go down in infamy. But there is a real need for a show about American Latinos, and for a show that satirizes the efforts of white Americans to understand their changing society that opens up more space for conversation and shutting it down. Is Rob that? It’s not particularly clear yet. But the design of Cheech Marin as a conservative immigrant small businessman who wants to defend the border with cannons and employs undocumented immigrants himself is intelligent in intention if not in execution: not all non-white people think alike, and not all of them hold positions that we think of as progressive. His interactions with Rob, who tries to ingratiate himself by supporting immigration reform and talking about how much he likes guacamole, are probably the parts of the show that work best: the target is Rob’s desire to be accepted even though he hasn’t tried hard to be knowledgeable, and the jokes don’t suggest that he should try less hard, just try better.
Where Work It was hostile in its proud ignorance, Rob is amiable in its attempts to get at something true. Neither of them are good shows, but Rob could become a decent one with the right intentions and some heavy lifting. Work It never would have been. It’s too bad ABC didn’t realize that before airing it.