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New ABC comedy lacks direction and laughs

In ABC's mirthless new comedy, "Don't Trust the B--- in Apartment 23" (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.) a girl named June (Dreama Walker) moves to the big city for a job at a big investment bank only to find the place in full-blown Madoff mayhem. Her first day turns out to be her last as the firm's honcho is led away in handcuffs. Which leads her to the want ads in search of a job and place to live. Unfortunately for all of us, she winds up at Apartment 23, where there is indeed a b-word waiting to bleep up June's life real good. Her name is Chloe (Krysten Ritter), a young woman who pretends to be nice to potential roommates and then drains them dry once they're caught in her web.

Although the quirky neighbor down the hall (Liza Lapira) tries to warn June not to trust Chloe (or move in with her), June forges ahead. It's all downhill from there -- Chloe lies, Chloe steals, Chloe seduces June's fiance with the explicit hope that June will walk in on her and the fiance having sex atop June's birthday cake. The message here is that it's great fun to be cruel. You're supposed to die laughing.

And even though there are some inspired quips zinging past, I found it all kind of shrivel-hearted and limp. It seems to come from some tedious, misguidedly post-feminist place of comedic darkness, where the only kind of funny is the selfish kind, and one woman mistreats another with the specific goal of "improving" her by breaking her into tiny pieces. With her knifey personality and vicious beauty, Ritter's Chloe is difficult to relate to; the one-note aspect wears itself out the minute we walk into Apartment 23.

The show has no fixed idea of what it wants to be, which means it wouldn't be the first comedy to turn into something else entirely within six or so episodes. "Happy Endings," which ABC launched last spring, started out as another in a long line of pretenders to the "Friends" throne and then found its way as an ensemble comedy about people who are more wickedly adept at mocking popular culture than razzing one another. "Cougar Town" started as a midlife sex farce and instead became a tender fantasy about neighbors who bond as a family unit -- so wildly different from its pilot episode that its creators came to rue their decision to call it "Cougar Town."

Alas, I don't sense that "Don't Trust the B--- in Apartment 23" has any inventive plans to evolve. It's only trick and main attention-getter is that it co-stars James Van Der Beek, the former "Dawson's Creek" heartthrob, now 35, playing a narcissistic version of "James Van Der Beek," who happens to be Chloe's only friend. This trope -- an actor playing a surlier, fictional version of himself -- has been done to death already, and "Don't Trust the B---" leans too heavily on the actor's state of celebrity limbo, filling in late-'90s jokes and references where the real laughs ought to be.