NEW YORK — Viewers may find ABC's new sitcom "Work It" to be cringingly awful from an entertainment standpoint.
But the show, which depicts two out-of-work chaps who dress as women to land jobs in a tough economy, has drawn fire from groups with a different complaint: They say "Work It" mocks the transgender community.
"Though the show is not about transgender people, it's about the notion that men presenting as women is funny," said Herndon Graddick of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
"It re-enforces inaccurate and tired stereotypes that are injurious to transgender Americans," said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization working on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
HRC is joining GLAAD in urging supporters to ask ABC not to air the series, which is scheduled to premiere Jan. 3.
On Wednesday, the two organizations placed a full-page ad in Daily Variety whose headline declares: "'Work It' will harm transgender people.'" The ad continues, "By encouraging the audience to laugh at the characters' attempts at womanhood, the show gives license to similar treatment of transgender women."
But is the campaign that targets "Work It" also, by extension, a broad denunciation of one of entertainment's most enduring devices: cross-dressing for comic effect?
This is a tradition that includes the late actor-drag queen Divine appearing in outrageous female roles in "Hairspray" and other John Waters films. Robin Williams played a man who adopted a persona as a Scottish nanny in the 1993 comedy "Mrs. Doubtfire." In 1982, "Tootsie" starred Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who dresses up as a soft-spoken actress to land a woman's role on a soap opera.
The 1959 film classic "Some Like It Hot" starred Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis as two straight guys who disguise themselves as women to seek refuge in an all-girl band after witnessing a mob hit.
The play, films and Broadway musical "La Cage aux Folles" depict the zany domestic life of a nightclub manager and his romantic partner, the star attraction in the club's drag performance. And on TV, Tom Hanks appeared with Peter Scolari in the 1980s sitcom "Bosom Buddies," which depicted male roommates posing as women to gain entry to a budget-priced apartment building which admitted only female residents.
Flash forward to "Work It," which pairs what the network calls "two unrepentant guy's guys" (Lee Standish, a family man, and Angel Ortiz, a ladies' man) who lost their jobs at a car dealership and have gone a year without employment.
"It's not a recession, it's a man-cession," says a commiserating friend. "Women are taking over the work force."
Soon, Lee (Ben Koldyke) hears of openings for sales reps at a pharmaceutical company. But the company is looking for women, not men, to fill the slots.
The company has hired guys in the past, Lee learns, but they didn't work out: "The doctors seem to want to nail them less."
Lee knows what he must do: He dresses up as a woman, however preposterously, and wins a job from the unsuspecting firm. So does his buddy, Angel (Amaury Nolasco), who is similarly costumed.
With their linebacker physiques, squeaky voices and amateurish makeup, neither man would fool a 5-year-old, which is meant to be part of the joke — whereupon laughs ensue (at least, from the show's high-decibel laugh track).
But while painfully unfunny, is "Work It" poised to inflict real damage on the transgender community?
On Wednesday, ABC declined to comment on the brewing controversy, and declined to make anyone available from the show to discuss it.
"There's been an understanding that to make other minority groups seem ridiculous on the basis of appearance alone is not accepted in modern media," Graddick said. "If the net result of this show is that it makes it easier to laugh at transgender people or negates their experience in our society, it's something that's not worth continuing.
"GLAAD's position is not that nobody can ever do cross-dressing again as a form of comedy," he added. "In the past, it has been done as a form of social commentary. But that doesn't seem to be the case with 'Work It.' In fact, quite the opposite."
HRC's Fred Sainz draws a sharp distinction between drag humor, an art form long the province of the gay community, and a cross-dressing show like "Work It" or "Tootsie," a film that, however well-regarded in its day, he views as a relic of a less-enlightened era.
"Humor of this nature continues to stigmatize transgender Americans and further confuses the reality of the situation," he said. "As we know better, we have a responsibility to do better."
Both organizations have stressed that ABC, overall, has a good record for positive portrayals of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community (with such shows as "Modern Family" and the recent appearance of Chaz Bono on "Dancing With the Stars").
"ABC has always been a great corporate citizen," Sainz said.
But even as talks continue with the network, "Work It" is still on the schedule and being promoted by ABC.
"We're taking this public stance because there don't seem any plans by ABC to pull 'Work It,'" GLAAD's Graddick said. "But we're hoping they will do so. Our hope is that this show will fall by the wayside."