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TELEVISION REVIEW

Comedy’s cross-dressing humor just doesn’t work

ERIC MCCANDLESS/ABC

From left: Kate Reinders, Kirstin Eggers, Ben Koldyke, and Rebecca Mader are co-workers at a pharmaceutical company in ABC’s “Work It.’’

Everything you need to know about “Work It’’ - the new ABC comedy about men dressing as women to find employment in hard times- can be summed up in two jokes in the pilot episode, airing tonight at 8:30.

Early on, family man Lee Standish (Ben Koldyke) is poised to whine about his upcoming prostate exam to his long-suffering wife, Connie (Beth Lacke). (Is there any other kind on a sitcom?) Connie, who has been helping keep the family afloat with her job as a nurse, stops him in his tracks by saying that comparing a prostate exam to the “pinball scene in ‘The Accused’ ’’ is not OK. No, it’s not. Nor is finding a way to say that he was going to make that comparison. It’s also, like much of the show itself, not funny.

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Later, his pal Angel Ortiz (Amaury Nolasco, “Prison Break’’) - who, like Lee, has been out of work for a year after their automotive plant shutdown - is perplexed to hear that Lee doesn’t think he can get Angel a job at his new place of employment, a pharmaceutical company. “I’m Puerto Rican,’’ protests Angel. “I’ll be great at selling drugs.’’

Sigh.

In addition to rape punch lines and ethnic stereotyping there are cheap, lazily constructed jokes about women taking over the workforce resulting in a “mancession,’’ the apparent indignity of a man grocery shopping for his family - a task described as “girly’’ - and Lee not understanding why his wife might not be keen on being woken up for sex after his night out drinking with the boys. (They may be out of work, but Lee and Angel’s alcohol discretionary fund appears robust.)

Some transgender groups have raised objections to the show, but the creators of “Work It’’ come out looking as bad as Lee and Angel post-transformation on just about every front when it comes to representation of any character.

The women in Lee’s office are cartoonish - the vapid blonde, the pathetic single gal, the cruel alpha female - and unbelievably clueless when it comes to their hulking new co-workers.

Once Lee and Angel are suited up in their pantyhose, eyeliner, and business skirts, they act like people who have never interacted with women before in their lives, much less observed the most basic of behaviors. (Generally, we don’t curtsy or compliment each other’s posteriors in job interviews.) And that Lee, presented as a smart, enterprising salesman, would be so daft as to leave his college football achievements on his resume strains credulity. Of course the show doesn’t even really pretend to have any of that from the premise on down. In a world where women are still paid less than men for the same work, would impersonating one really be worth the risk and aggravation? Would it even be permissible for a company to hire only women, as this one does?

The whole thudding, tiresomely retro, and wholly illogical enterprise makes you wonder in just what decade these characters are living and to whom they hope to appeal. Setting aside the cross-dressing for a moment, the core issue in “Work It’’ is the desperation of hard economic times. That subject has been mined successfully in the past on shows like “Good Times’’ and “Roseanne.’’ But there was a humanity to those projects that “Work It’’ sorely lacks.

All of which is too bad, since Koldyke - who played Robin’s could’ve-been love interest Don on “How I Met Your Mother’’ - is immensely likable. He has solid sitcom timing and a decent sense of when to dig a little deeper emotionally. Hopefully, if “Work It’’ fails to work, he and Nolasco will find better vehicles for their skills in the future.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

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