12:21 pm Feb. 3, 2012
Gentrification stops for no man. The slow encroachment of coffee shop franchises and massive chain drug stores that many believe upset the charm and specificity of local neighborhoods is, by now, well underway in Williamsburg and it’s making its way into Greenpoint. Which is not to say that North Brooklyn has lost all of its charm and specificity—if anything, local flavor becomes deeper and richer the rarer it gets, and the adamantly local, non-franchisable, irreducibly Brooklynite aspects of local culture start to bear more cultural cachet than before. Which of course makes them even more attractive to multinational entertainment machines seeking to market authenticity (whether real or perceived) to a mass audience. Enter MTV’s I Just Want My Pants Back, which officially debuted last night.
Based on David Rosen’s 2007 novel of the same name, and adapted by Rosen himself for the small screen, the show is set in and shot partially on location in Greenpoint and North Williamsburg. Rosen’s novel, a mildly manipulative coming of age story, didn’t exactly make a splash upon release. But as a producer and writer for MTV, it’s possible that the author had television in mind all along.
Rosen's novel is set in the West Village. But: “It felt like that wasn’t really going to be an accurate place where young broke people could be living anymore," he told Capital in a phone interview. "We really felt like Brooklyn, specifically Greenpoint, was the right area for our cast.”
For their part, Greenpoint lurkers have shown their curiosity about the show, which follows 20-something Jason Strider (Peter Vack) and his friends through the tribulations particular to their age and neighborhood. The upright and responsible couple Stacey and Eric (Elizabeth Hower and Jordan Carlos) are finishing med school and law school, respectively, while Tina (Kim Shaw) and Jason stumble through hook-ups, failed relationships, and mid-twenties malaise.
Superficially, the show seems like another instance of an MTV teen/twenties sex-and-sentiment dramedy (cf. Undressed, Skins, and even the past decade or so of The Real World). In the pilot, Jason commiserates with Tina over his inability to get laid and ends up taking a girl home from the bar, after which she borrows a pair of his pants and leaves him with a fake phone number. His yearning after said pants and the girl who wore them—and all the stymied possibilities and disappointment they represent—constitutes the emotional through line for the show. Neither boyfriend jeans nor ex-girlfriend jeans, they're mere hook-up jeans.
In some alternate television dimension, the characters in I Just Want My Pants Back are neighbors with the cast of CBS’ Brooklyn-based 2 Broke Girls, but they certainly don't ride the train together in our world. That show has been facing a barrage of criticism for its pretty clearly racist depiction of restaurant owner Han Lee (Matthew Moy), among other shortcomings. In fact, 2 Broke Girls is plastered with local inaccuracies and New York tropes left over from The Warriors—it's useful as a compendium of NYC cliché, good for a cringe but not a laugh. I Just Want My Pants Back fares better—its nearest equivalent to Lee is Bobby (Sunkrish Bala), the bemused owner of a bodega frequented by Jason and Tina. He fills the “nutty immigrant” slot on the show and, while he’s a misogynist, at least the show seems aware of it, the characters acknowledge it as a quirk, and they move on.
The pilot suffers from the sorts of things pilots usually suffer from: it has to introduce its characters, its neighborhood, its logic, and half a novel’s worth of exposition in 22 minutes. Naturally there are some awkward moments. None of this is helped by Rosen’s dialogue, which was the weakest aspect of his novel and remains so in the show. I Just Want My Pants Back suffers from the emphasis it places on conversation, which aspires to Howard Hawksian heights in both wit and speed, and tends to come up short (Tina: “Go talk to that girl. Be funny. Funny to girls is like boobs to boys. Smell ya later.”). Vack and Shaw, at least, are perfectly cast. They exude perfect platonic affection—even when the writing falls flat, there’s a natural-seeming sympathy there. The boy-girl friendship is difficult to portray convincingly, but Shaw's self-assuredness provides a nice counterweight to Vack's mumbly insecurity, a dynamic seemingly streamlined over the course of years that has attained perfect emotional efficiency.
So it’s not as good as Howard Hawks: nothing really is. But what it lacks in cutting wit it makes up for bafflingly specific social observations; what I Just Want My Pants Back seems most interested in, at this early date, is preventing its characters from looking like stereotypes. One of the ways its does this is through doing some stereotyping of its own. A party scene in episode 3 does a fine job mocking too-well-dressed, esoterically employed, and inexplicably moneyed Brooklyn hipsters—at one point a fussily-shirted “M.F.A. blogger” (played with perfect smarminess by Amir Blumfeld) complains that meat served at a dinner party “was so not local,” and Tina warns Jason that her semi-boyfriend Brett is “wearing a pocket monocle, [but] I'm trying to see past it.” That the scene takes place at a “ravioli party” hosted by James Franco (who doesn’t actually appear in the show), tells us we're meant to roll our eyes at the pretense and preciousness, and identify with Tina when she does some eye rolling of her own. Lest there be any confusion, the ravioli party reminds us that our soulful, down-to-earth lead actors are not like those self-obsessed hipsters.
A deeper problem, though, seems intimately related to exactly the kind of hipster lampooning I Just Want My Pants Back plays for laughs. What makes the show's hipsters funny is a surfeit of ironic self-consciousness paired with a total lack of self-awareness—Franco’s sophisticated take on his own persona induces groans because he doesn’t seem quite aware of how petty and narcissistic his parodies of his narcissism really are. The show is ostensibly about a young man’s search for his pants, i.e. his search for a one-night stand that could have become something real. But its bread and butter comes from the age-old push-pull of both skewering and professing love for your neighborhood: in this case Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
“To me, the best shows do a good job of creating a very specific world, and Brooklyn, and Greenpoint specifically, and the few blocks where we really mapped out our where our characters live … it’s all figured out and real," Rosen told me. I think that by being really specific to that, it’s not exclusionary. "It’ll be inclusionary once you sort of understand their world and how it works.”
In a geographical sense, Rosen is surely correct. But the show lacks the qualities of the kind of media its characters would probably consume. Jason Strider would never watch a show like the show he is in.
The show does a fine job enumerating the cultural reference points its characters would be navigating through (egg and cheese sandwiches, Wavves), but it never adopts their attitude toward those reference points. What Strider would probably recognize if he watched the show would be a Brooklyn neighborhood's transplantation to a national stage. He might ask, Cornell-educated guy that he is, if the specificity that show strives for can have any meaning once Greenpoint is everywhere and once-local in-jokes become universally recognized.
Fair enough. Everyone accepts that we all now have unprecedented access to things that were previously purely local—the internet exists, after all. But when a guy who works at an indie record label tells Strider, “Nice skinny tie, by the way” with a straight face, it’s impossible not to hear the screeching sound of unintended irony—it's exactly the kind of thing you imagine the hipsters at the party saying, but here it's passed over in silence. It’s a tiny moment in the show, but tiny moments and vanishingly small distinctions make the difference between the parody and parodied. Something, an attitude or inflection that makes all the difference, hasn't made it to the other side.
More by this author:
- John Lurie, with a 'Fishing With John' screening, hopes to 'reacquaint myself with the world a bit'
- More mean than mirthful, 'The Comedy' skewers the young and the aimless