The new sitcom ''Whitney'' isn't as bad as all the haters say it is — although it sure is close. Still, the heated reaction to the show tells us a lot about our warring visions of TV comedy

By Mark Harris
Updated November 04, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

People frequently complain when a show gets canceled — but when they’re furious that it’s still on, something’s up. NBC’s sitcom Whitney recently won a full-season order, and Internet reaction suggests that although it isn’t TV’s least popular show right now, it just might be the most hated. Sample tweets: ”The best part of watching…was when I found a Double Stuff Oreo in my couch! The worst part was that my TV was turned on.” And: ”Usually a show is named after its star so I’m really surprised they didn’t name Whitney ‘Laughtrack.”’ There are others so caustic I can’t print them, but you get the point. To people who dislike Whitney, it’s not just a bad comedy. It’s a kind of violation.

Why the loathing? No question, Whitney‘s not good. But if ”not good” were enough to inspire public rage, we’d all be at the Occupy Tim Allen rally right now. The anti-Whitney seething is proof that when it comes to taste in comedy, what divides us is still greater than what unites us. We may be living through a sitcom renaissance (last week, the top five scripted shows among 18- to 49-year-olds were comedies). But that renaissance is mostly built on three separate comedy universes with vastly different rules about what’s funny.

Universe No. 1 is CBS’ Monday lineup — comedies about sex, romance, and the mating game. The winning How I Met Your Mother and Mike & Molly are both about the bumpy road to true love; Two and a Half Men is about getting laid (maybe it’s more nuanced than that, but…no, it’s not); and 2 Broke Girls, the Whitney Cummings sitcom that doesn’t make people weep blood, will inevitably involve at least two broke guys sooner or later. The tone of these shows is genial and raucous, vagina jokes are exhaustingly common currency, the ”live” studio audience expresses eardrum-shredding delight, and nobody ever talks to the camera.

Universe No. 2 is ABC’s Wednesday lineup. There are no laugh tracks, although the shadowless orange-yellow lighting that has graced all ABC sitcoms since Happy Days promises cheerfulness. These appealing shows — The Middle, Suburgatory, Modern Family — take place mostly in suburbs, not cities, and they’re about families, not romance. Their humor is broad, their politics mostly left-of-center, their jokes less genital-based than CBS’. The one outlier, Happy Endings, is younger, raunchier, and Friends-ier. It’s a mismatch for the night, but not an egregious one; you can imagine that one of its characters could be a cousin to Phil or Claire Dunphy.

Universe No. 3 — NBC’s Thursday lineup — is Cultville, a journey through a land of smart-asses and misfits in which Whitney could not be less at home. It feels like a CBS (Coarse, Brassy, Sitcommy) show that landed on the wrong network on the wrong night, and that’s why it incites such indignation.

The NBC comedies — Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office — don’t have laugh tracks, they have ironic commentary. They’re not about family or friends; they’re about people you find yourself semi-contentedly stuck with — in a dead-end college, an Indiana municipal building, a paper-sales branch office. They are sharp, often very funny, sometimes sad and a little bitter. They are what Jim and Pam are watching while Kevin, Andy, Stanley, Meredith, and Kelly are watching CBS’ Monday shows. (Ryan is probably only watching Community and complaining that it’s not what it once was.) Some weeks, you can sit through NBC’s comedies from 8 to 9:30 p.m. — when Whitney begins — and never see the inside of someone’s home, the likelihood of sex, or even a smile.

For some of us, that works. Which may be the reason for the ”Who is this bitch and where did she put Liz Lemon?” reaction to Whitney. We don’t get why she’s standing in her big setlike apartment playing naughty-nurse games with her boyfriend while banging out one-liners to howls of audience approbation. After 90 minutes of rueful wit, the haunted-house shrieks of laughter in Whitney play like American Horror Story. Which means that the show needs either the addition of Jessica Lange with a meat cleaver, or a different network. But only one of those would make it funnier.