Sebastian Maniscalco’s New Sitcom Is Almost Good

But it just had to immediately take a position in the culture wars
Sebastian Maniscalco’s New Sitcom Is Almost Good

There are almost as many kinds of sitcoms about stand-up comics as there are kinds of comics. If you do a lot of gentle material about your marriage, you can play someone who’s mostly happily married, like Paul Reiser in Mad About You. If you do a lot of characters, you can play a lot of characters, like Martin Lawrence in Martin. If you’re weird, you can play a literal alien, like Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy. If you’re normal, you can play a therapist surrounded by weirdos, like Bob Newhart in The Bob Newhart Show. Sebastian Maniscalco is known for an act that could generously be called vintage but also has been called reactionary. His new sitcom perfectly aligns with that ethos — and it’s a shame.

In Bookie, which premiered its first two episodes on Max today, Maniscalco is the titular bookie, Danny. The first episode follows him through a single day: We watch Danny, in Los Angeles, take sports bets over the phone; try and fail to collect on bets clients have lost; fight with his wife Sandra (Andrea Anders); bicker with his sister/associate Lorraine (Vanessa Ferlito); and track down his most high-profile debt-skipper at a luxe rehab center in Malibu. Sitcom-producing superstar Chuck Lorre co-created the show with Nick Bakay (a veteran producer on several other Lorre productions, including Bob Hearts Abishola and Young Sheldon). Maniscalco may not also be credited as a creator, but lines like “That’s the douche way to say it” (when someone corrects his French pronunciation) and the air of unfocused menace Maniscalco brings to the performance show how closely the writing hews to Maniscalco’s stage persona.

Both Bakay and Lorre have considerable experience bringing to the screen stories of both maladjusted men (The Kominsky MethodTwo and A Half Men) and addictive behaviors (Mom), so a show in which a maladjusted man’s job is to facilitate other people’s addictive behaviors could really work. The first moments of the episode include the sort of process details that make a look into an unfamiliar world compelling, from Client #536 (Ray Romano) calling in a new and risky bet while leaving the family home he’s just been kicked out of for gambling to Danny’s associate Ray (Omar J. Dorsey) returning from a collection call with cash they both eventually agree the client literally wiped his ass with. (When Ray doubts whether Danny can distinguish dog poop from human, Danny snaps, “Do dogs eat onions?”)

Then we see Danny on a collection call to a maître d’ client he knows as Stewart. Except, when Danny enters the restaurant, the woman at the host stand says he no longer works there. Peering more closely at the hostess’s face and hands, Danny gasps, “STEWIE?!” Following her into the back, Danny asks, “Is this, like, a Halloween thing?” The hostess tells Danny she’s decided to live her truth, but no, that doesn’t include paying Danny the thousands she lost betting on the WNBA, and while Danny is still absorbing this news, she punches Danny hard enough in the face to knock him onto the floor, then keeps beating him with a tray. She knows this is when Danny will want to break legs and noses, but she spent a lot to look pretty and won’t let him ruin her face.

So: a few things. First, the person playing this transgender character is Michael McMillian, a self-identified straight cis man. Obviously, I can’t know whether this is because the production went out to trans actors who declined to take the role because it was beneath their dignity, or because the production didn’t go out to trans actors because they didn’t think verisimilitude was important in the casting of this role, but it’s probably one or the other, and someone should have nixed this scene before it got in front of viewers. Second, the fact that trans people make up around 1 percent of the U.S. population has not slowed the attacks on their rights, including close to 600 anti-trans bills in 2023 alone. For the pilot’s first big comic set pieces to be a scene in which a trans person must defend herself from someone who asks if her new gender identity is a costume says a lot about the show’s values.

Defenders of the show would probably say that, actually, the hostess gets the better of Danny, who has to spend the rest of the day fielding questions about what happened to his face and even writes off the debt. They might also say that, even though we’ve barely spent any time with Danny by the time this altercation occurs, it would not be credible for Danny to react to the character’s change of appearance with hearty congratulations or even polite tolerance, not only because Danny is an old-fashioned misanthrope who hates everyone equally (even Sandra is in his phone as “What Was I Thinking?”) but also because the client is in Danny’s debt, and they’re not friends (though they are friendly enough for Danny to know the client’s old name, whereas every other client we’ve seen him interact with to this point has just been a number). 

It’s a fair point that Danny would need some education on gender identity — and he does get it, when Danny tells Ray what happened, though Danny’s response to Ray’s efforts is “You punch me in the face, I get to call you any pronoun I want.” But after her one scene, the hostess remains off-screen, and every time we hear about her, it’s in a joke about how embarrassed Danny should be to have been bested by a woman, or about her anatomy — both jokes that are really at her expense. This could have been a story thread about how trans people can be just as likely to engage in potentially dangerous vices as straight people can, and that made her seem as three-dimensional as Romano’s Client #536 in a scene that could have been just as brief. Instead, we never even find out her new name. Maybe then a trans woman might have wanted to play her; instead, she’s portrayed by a man in a dress, one of the oldest and corniest jokes there is, in a setup that makes the middle-aged white guy act like her victim.

The choice to put a moment like this — which is guaranteed to elicit exactly the reaction I just had from me and my fellow killjoy critics, and exactly the opposite reaction from the fans of Maniscalco’s stand-up — so early in the first episode reminds me of Bupkis. Another streaming sitcom about a stand-up comic, Bupkis opens with Pete Davidson, playing “himself,” in the basement of his mother’s house, which he’s renovated into his apartment. He’s taking a test run jerking off to porn on a VR headset, so he doesn’t hear his mother (Edie Falco) come down or realize she’s there at all until he ejaculates on her. A viewer is going to be on board with a show this self-consciously shocking, or they’re not, and while the hostess scene in Bookie is more casually hateful than gross, both feel like they’re drawing a hard and very intentional boundary: Decide which side you’re on, because neither show, apparently, wants anyone who’s waffling.

It’s a shame, because — hostess scene aside — Bookie actually has a lot to recommend. I don’t know anything about sports betting (surprise?), but the specifics surrounding Danny’s business feel realistic enough to be engaging. Having him interact with clients from all kinds of backgrounds opens up limitless potential story paths. Ray — who’s gone into enforcement after breaking his leg in three places, forcing the end of his career in the NFL — is written with a lot more care than the hostess to keep him on the right side of stereotype, as when he dryly tells Lorraine why he didn’t intervene at the restaurant: “I’m mostly a visual deterrent.” Danny gets aggressively personal in his fight with Sandra, but having loved Andrea Anders since Better Off Ted, I can easily imagine Sandra getting her own back in future episodes. Maybe the hostess even comes back to redeem that scene. 

I wouldn’t know, because, in an extremely unusual move, Max only provided one advance episode screener. I don’t want to assume that means the rest of the season will provide even more plotlines for killjoy critics to yell about, but it’s kind of hard not to, so in the absence of other evidence, all I can go by is that hard and intentional boundary. I can take a hint.

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