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Krysten Ritter as Chloe in Don't trust the b in apartment 23.
Krysten Ritter as Chloe in Don't trust the b in apartment 23.

John Doyle

Witches and words that rhyme with that Add to ...

In Ireland, it is not unusual for a fella to be called “a cute hoor.”

The term is used to describe a slippery character, a schemer who gets what he wants with slyness. It is often used in admiration. And it has nothing to do with sex or prostitution. It is never applied to a woman.

However, it’s the perfect term to describe the central character in Don't Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 (ABC, CITY-TV, 9:30 p.m.), which premieres tonight. That character is Chloe (Krysten Ritter), a scammer extraordinaire. Chloe doesn’t pay for her drinks in bars and instinctively rips off every stranger she encounters. All done with a certain charm, naturally.

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Obviously, Chloe is the “b****” in the title. And this new sitcom is the second mid-season show to flirt with the word “b****.” GCB, the catty and wacky Sunday-night soap, is based on Kim Gatlin’s bestselling book Good Christian Bitches, and held that title through development until it was decided that it would be GCB and that title was shorthand for “Good Christian Belles.”

Two show titles do not a trend make, but there is something illuminating about the wariness of using the word “b****.” Back in January, when Paul Lee, an Englishman and head honcho at ABC, met TV critics, he dwelt briefly on the issue when asked about the two titles. What he said was, “When we looked at Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23, we felt that.…” And there he stopped to collect his thoughts and move forward carefully. He finally concluded, “Look, on broadcast television, it turns out that it’s not a word that you want to use in the title.”

This is interesting because the b-word is used in dialogue on network TV regularly. It’s just that it is used only by women referring to other women. (This newspaper will only allow the b-word to be used in a direct quote and in context.) It’s one of those situations in which one group seems to have proprietary ownership of a word. Nobody else gets to use it. It’s also an illustration of our high sensitivity to certain words. English, as spoken in the United States and Canada, has a peculiar rigidity in public usage. While all language is elastic and usage grows and changes organically, in this neck of the woods we tend to try to put English on a leash.

We tend to be worrywarts. We tend to let language shift in popular usage and hope that somebody, somewhere, will make a decision about whether it’s permissible to use, in print and in TV-show titles, a word that has been drained of its original sting. We’re foolish that way.

As it turns out, Don't Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 is not merely interesting because of its title. It’s a very funny, clever comedy about people and a culture in which everything is a scam.

We meet June (Dreama Walker), who arrives in New York from Indiana to take a cool job at a big finance company. On arrival, she discovers that the entire company is one big scam and has just been exposed. Viewers will see echoes of the collapse of Wall Street banks and the Bernie Madoff scandal. Looking for work and a place to live, June encounters Chloe. It turns out that Chloe has a habit of taking a rental deposit and then behaving with such strangeness that the roommate flees, fleeced. June is unaware until a woman down the hall whispers, “Don't trust the b---- in apartment 23.”

An added ingredient to the already loopy comedy is Chloe’s best pal, who happens to be actor James Van Der Beek, the teen heartthrob from Dawson's Creek, playing himself. This Van Der Beek is a guy lazily cruising on his Dawson’s rep and happily putting on his old character’s plaid shirt to thrill women who once had a crush on him.

What unfolds is nutty. Awakened by Chloe to her inner b****, June turns out to be not as wholesome as at first thought. There is a hilarious bit of business with the arrival of June’s allegedly saintly boyfriend and, well, everybody is scammed in every direction.

Krysten Ritter is fabulous as Chloe, an emphatic femme fatale, a con artist who seems to have a heart of gold but doesn’t. Van Der Beek is clearly having a whale of a time playing an outrageous version of himself. But what’s really compelling is how eminently skeptical the show is, and how confident it is about being an emanation of a culture in which everything seems to be a con job. It’s a sharp take on the ubiquity of fraud in the U.S. today.

As for the word b****, it is clearly used here to attract female viewers. They know what it means and how to apply it. It’s been applied to me many times by lady readers. I have never been a called a “cute hoor,” though.

All times ET. Check local listings.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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