In this corner, a onetime almost-movie star who has his own Food Network show! In that corner: a former SNL writer with some standup comedy experience! These two sitcoms have almost nothing in common, not even their ratings. I watched the pilots for both a while back and procrastinated doing anything with my notes…until now.
Remember those decades when there were sitcoms starring 100% nonwhite families? It’s about time someone brought that back. Former Kangaroo Jack victim Anthony Anderson (who also serves as executive producer) is Andre Johnson, an ad exec who’s the head of an affluent black family living in an upscale neighborhood. His wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross from UPN’s long-running sitcom Girlfriends) is a surgeon, and their four kids seem a lot less self-conscious about their living situation than dear ol’ Dad is. What follows is a string of jokes about the kids’ indifferent immersion in an increasingly color-blind community, while Dad vows to uphold his responsibility to teach them the true meaning of Blackness. Mom, because this is a sitcom and she’s therefore the smart one, plays moderator and does her best to curb Dad’s high-strung excesses.
In the pilot, manly Andre freaks out because his oldest son wants to play field hockey (which was never an option at any school I attended, so they’ve got me beat) and have a bar mitzvah for his thirteenth birthday so he can receive extra presents, even though he’s not remotely Jewish. Meanwhile at work, that anticipated promotion to Senior Vice President goes through with a slight twist: Andre is now overseeing the company’s newly invented “Urban Division” for, um, specifically targeted ad campaigns and clients. (Quoth an indignant Andre: “Did they just put me in charge of black stuff?“)
Meanwhile, lurking in the background is one of the show’s other big-name exec producers, Academy Award Nominee Laurence Fishburne, as every sitcom live-in grandpa ever. If Andre stands up for himself, Grandpa knocks him down. If everyone acts too cheerful, Grandpa tosses in a grouchy one-liner. Fishburne is no Redd Foxx, but his freedom from self-restraint does allow him one of the pilot’s most cutting moments. When Andre tries to sway his son over to the side of Black gift-giving occasions by preparing him for an “African rites of passage ceremony” (which Anderson plays like a daffy send-up of an old Good Times episode from my childhood, or maybe something more recent I didn’t watch) with the themed fashion and props and everything, Grandpa scoffs at their antics: “This ain’t our culture. We black, not African-American. Africans don’t even like us.”
For the space of that one line and a few other choice moments, Black-ish reaches the craftier, more thought-provoking levels of Everybody Hates Chris. More often that not, though, it wants to be The Cosby Show of a new generation. That’s not a bad ideal to strive for at all, though Cosby’s focus wasn’t quite as overtly preoccupied with racial politics. Cosby was also a lot funnier. I saw Anderson in an all-star episode of Chopped a few months ago and got the same impression from there that I did from this: he seems like a funny guy who’d be a ball to hang out with in person, but if we’re looking for nationwide-TV funny, a few of the quips fell a tad short and could’ve used some polishing. (“Keep it real!” becomes a running gag that’s worked to the bone, and I made a face when someone sent a bucket down into the old-folks’ joke well to pull up an OJ Simpson reference.)
In general, though, the Black-ish ensemble kept me smiling and made me think more than once. I saw a lot of potential and, judging by its healthy ratings and ABC’s recent full-season pickup order, I’m glad I’m not alone. Once they’ve gotten through a few more episodes and into a steady working pattern, I wouldn’t mind paying a follow-up visit.Mulaney:
Assuming this show hasn’t already been canceled by the time this entry is published:
Young comedy writer John Mulaney plays John Mulaney, a young comedy writer. The show uses the Seinfeld template of 20% stand-up routine plus 80% sitcom based around four characters you wouldn’t trust to babysit a sack of flour. His bestest pals include Motif (fellow comedian Seaton Smith), a black wannabe comedian who thinks more about his merchandise than about his punchlines; extra-loud Jane (ex-SNLer Nasim Pedrad) as the average sitcom airhead; and a pot-dealer pal I found so unbelievably unfunny that I’d like to end this sentence prematurely so I can stop talking about him. Meanwhile across the hall lives Elliott Gould as the mandatory wacky neighbor, for comedy street cred or whatever. And in case we viewers at home miss our cues, there’s retro “studio audience” laughter to signal us whenever the writers think they’ve completed a full joke.
Mulaney seems unused to performing scripted material himself for TV. His awkward delivery hobbles more than one potentially not-bad line, and too often he’s looking directly at the camera but refusing to make eye contact with it, as if he’s shy and afraid it’ll peer into his soul. He seems more at home during the standup bits, though his material felt more opening-act than headliner. Things perk up a bit when he’s on the job, kowtowing to new boss Lou Cannon (Martin Short basically doing whatever comes to mind), whose mercurial diva whims threaten to force Our Hero into any expression other than smirking.
So much of this pilot made me wonder if the whole production were meant as a subversive satire of the sheer banality of the average TV sitcom and that, in fact, its revelry in that very banality is meant to be ironically so-unfunny-it’s-funny. That might work for the space of a 12:45 a.m. SNL filler sketch if it had been more exaggerated. I’m not prepared to extend that much benefit of the doubt, certainly not for five times the running length.
Minutes passed before I confirmed it wasn’t for me: 2. However…
…the final two minutes, which take place on the set of Lou Cannon’s new game-show hosting gig, were authentically witty and, coupled with a well-timed celeb cameo, were funnier than the rest of the episode and the entire Manhattan Love Story pilot combined. I’ve no idea why there’s such a disconnect from everything else, but is it too late to script-doctor the stand-up segments, ditch a few characters, and make the series totally about the game show?
(For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Thanks for reading!)