Meagan Tandy, left, Matthew Atkinson, Erica Dasher and Nick Roux in "Jane… (Andrew Eccles / ABC Family )
The economy — sluggish, recession-y, depressed — while slow to recover has also been slow to inspire television series about the slow-to-recover economy. As if in recompense, not one but two shows with premises rooted in high unemployment premiere Tuesday.
In each, the lead characters lead double lives for the sake of a job: In the much remarked upon but hardly anticipated "Work It" on ABC, two men put on wigs and dresses to sell pharmaceuticals at a firm that prefers to hire women over men (because, as one character explains, "the doctors seem to want to nail them less" — because doctors are, you know, dudes). In "Jane By Design" on ABC Family, a high school teenager passes as an adult while working as an executive assistant at a high-powered house of fashion.
"Work It" has been controversial in the contemporary sense: an organization has made a public fuss about it, the complaint itself becoming news in a way its target, left alone, would not. (See also: Parents Television Council v. "The Playboy Club"; Florida Family Assn. v. "All-American Muslim.") In December, the LGBT advocacy groups GLAAD and HRC took out a full-page ad in Variety that, under the headline "'Work It' will harm transgender people," suggested that "by encouraging the audience to laugh at the characters' attempts at womanhood, the show condones similar treatment of transgender women."
That is too great a logical leap. "Work It," as even its critics point out, makes no such association; you can't hold it accountable for what someone might mistakenly take from it. A comedy of disguise, its estimable forebears are "Some Like It Hot" and "Tootsie," and if it has any deeper point, it is the old one that masquerading as a woman can make one a better man. There may be a Teachable Moment here, but calls to cancel the series are misguided (as are all such calls) and likely unnecessary. It is a windmill, not a giant, and it should wind down shortly on its own.
Passing on to the show itself, "Work It" feels like the third installment in ABC's Manliness Trilogy, preceded by "Last Man Standing" and "Man Up!," into whose (temporarily?) vacated space it moves. The recession, a male character says here, is really a "mancession — women are takin' over the work force. They'll just keep a few of us around as sex slaves." In fact, the recession did open an employment gap that favored women over men; in the news in 2009 and 2010, it was possibly the grain of sand around which this pearl, from "Friends" vets Andrew Reich and Ted Cohen, has formed. That and somebody's fondness for "Bosom Buddies." You can almost hear the pitch.
But the series — which is to say, the pilot — is just not very good; the jokes creak and wheeze, and there is nothing in the performances to distract from the material. ("Bosom Buddies" at least starred Tom Hanks, America's future sweetheart.) If you want to call it insulting to men who dress as women, you have to also call it insulting to men who don't, and to women. (Sample lines: "Have I gotten drunk and slept with a random guy yet?" "I'm Puerto Rican — I'd be great at selling drugs.") Yet it is not actually ill-willed, just ill-witted.
"Jane By Design" is also a show about dressing for success. High school student Jane (Erica Dasher), to not lose the house she shares with her jobless older brother, finds herself with mutually secret identities and in different costumes as a "career girl in high fashion" and a "dateless high school zero." Created by April Blair (Disney Channel's "Lemonade Mouth," Selena Gomez's "Monte Carlo"), the series surrounds the heroine with familiar attitudinal place-holders that may eventually turn into people: the well-to-do mean girl, the quirky best friend, the secretly sensitive jock (and longtime unspoken crush), the caretaker in need of care but also the diva boss, the wacky work friends.
Through mechanisms only marginally more believable than those in "Work It" but at least bolstered by forged papers and a fake I.D., Jane becomes the assistant to Andie MacDowell's imperious fashion exec. "If you make it a week, I'll be shocked," she tells Jane, whom she calls Janet.
Though accessorized with the jargon of couture, the series happily recycles vintage plot lines. Work the runway show or go to a dance with the boy you've loved since middle school? (Friend: "I know that look." Jane: "I have a plan.") Things go wrong, then right. Like all the other "marginal" girls of popular fiction, Jane is the story's center of unrealized power: "That has potential," says the firm's dreamy, dangerous designer (Jeremy Jones), glancing at her sketches.
This is not merely pandering to the teenage base. "Jane By Design" is a font of fulfilled wishes, but they come from actual work, even if that work is presented in kicky-fun, pop-driven montage. The show is aspirational and at times genuinely exciting. You care enough about Jane, thanks in large part to Dasher, who is charming and funny, that you want her to have her cake and her ice cream too.