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This Week in Black Television: How to Fix Black Sitcom Characters

Shadow and Act By Curtis Caesar John | Shadow and Act December 21, 2012 at 11:34AM

It must be the end of the world today because I’m finally posting a new edition of This Week in Black Television!  In Part II of my focus on Black sitcoms, I am concentrating on helping us all figure out what’s going wrong, or right, with Black talent in other sitcoms – specifically on shows where they’re the only Black person on cast.  Below, are some points in helping us, and the entertainment community at large, figure out how these can improve.    
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Toks Olagundoye, Retta, and Anthony Anderson
Toks Olagundoye, Retta, and Anthony Anderson

It must be the end of the world today because I’m finally posting a new edition of This Week in Black Television!  In Part II of my focus on Black sitcoms, I am concentrating on helping us all figure out what’s going wrong, or right, with Black talent in other sitcoms – specifically on shows where they’re the only Black person on cast.  Below, are some points in helping us, and the entertainment community at large, figure out how these can improve.    

Personality, please 

Surprisingly, Lamorne Morris’ character of Winston in New Girl has of late been given much more to do than stand around, spout something intelligent or insightful that the silly other characters haven’t noticed and then fade back into the background. Maybe, just maybe executive producer Liz Meriwether and her writing team have been reading my column (it’s possible!) and taken notice that people care about my man Winston and done right by him? Whatever the whys and wherefores, the point is that Winston finally matters. Shame that he had to break up with Kali Hawk’s Shelby (she’s #4 on my personal ‘Wifey’ list) but it has bettered his character; their Halloween breakup episode was one of the best of the series this year. 

 So where can they improve Winston?  Really just by building a more distinct personality for him.  He’s not cartoonish like Schmidt or angry like Nick nor does he need to fit into a goofy mold. Winston is sensible but prone to high emotion and definitely has some centering and growing up to do, some of which it seems they were trying to establish in season one, though unsuccessfully and boringly like when they tried to make him a super-nanny of a little white child.  Yes, that’s true.   But the recent episode in which Winston plotted with Jess to get a bathtub for the house, which led to utter disaster, was an intelligent and comedic way to bring him into the center of the action. Why should all of Jess’ attention center on Nick and their ‘will they or won’t they’ subplots?  (Of course the flipside is that Nick got to spend time with the beautiful and talented Olivia Munn from The Newsroom but we’ll leave that alone for now).  So what should his personality be?  Well he’s found his path and figured out what his post-European basketball playing days skill set is, as a radio producer, so they can build on that and have him try and settle his inadequacy issues which harken back to his overbearing and dismissive mother and more successful athlete sister, and work from there.  

Work Well With Others…and Makes Them Better

Guys With Kids (yes, I obviously watch it so leave me alone!) much to the surprise of viewers and critics alike (myself, included) is still running.  It works because it has classic sitcom characteristics:  easy-to-understand characters, both visually and personality wise, cute kids/babies, and surprise…its own voice.  It also has a great element that wasn’t fully regarded my (not me) most:  Anthony Anderson, who is the absolutely best thing about the show, without question. And this comes from a non- card carrying member of the Jesse Bradford fan club (yes, you don’t have to tell me, I obviously watch too much television if I’m a fan of Jesse Bradford).  Anderson carries the show on his narrower with more weight loss but still broad shoulders and his good chemistry with sitcom veteran Tempestt Bledsoe, a relationship in which he is the stay-at-home dad for two rowdy boys and a newborn twins.  So how does Anderson make this show work?  Well, while the sitcom is built as an ensemble and does not center on any one character or couple to guide it, there will always be a standout – and that’s Anderson, who since the Saturday morning NBC kiddie show Hang Time, and his continual work in movies like Exit Wounds, Kingdom Come, and even Barbershop, has been the comedic, or in films like Hustle & Flow the sardonic, breath of fresh air that either helps elevate other performers or the movie on a whole.  Unfortunately, when Anderson is the lead, like in the short lived K-Ville, or dreadful movies like his Kings Ransom and My Baby Daddy, he doesn’t have as much success.  Not everyone can take the lead, but Anderson is that go-to-guy to make average fare extraordinary. 

Um, Actually BE Funny

Staying on NBC but leaving Tracy Morgan alone on 30 Rock since it is coming to an end come January (though I can write a chapter of a book on the idiot evolution of his character), as well as Leslie David Baker and Craig Robinson on The Office as their show ends come May 2013, we have the comedian Retta who plays Donna on Parks & Recreation.  How can the smart-mouthed Donna be improved upon? She cannot. Donna is comedy gold!  Some may argue that we need to see more of Donna. This could not be further from the truth. As the best sitcom ensemble on the air, beating out Damon Wayans Jr. and crew on Happy Endings, the cast on Parks gels beautifully.  Though the show could use less of Andy (Chris Pratt) they use Donna to perfection, centering in on her occasional hilarious facial reactions and behind-the-scenes sexy shenanigans that we sometimes get glimpses of. Donna cares about others, but cares about herself more and while she values her job (which I now realize I have no idea what she does!) is more concerned about her life outside of it, making her less cantankerous than her workers and thus my favorite kind of city worker.  Her dynamic must come from her comedy background, knowing how to play the supporting role to distinction (think Steve Landesberg on Barney Miller) and not digging for the spotlight. Funny and witty and possessing great comic-timing, Retta is an amazingly rare gem among the tropes of sitcom actors, Black or otherwise. 

Know how to Tally Ho!

The British invasion of American television is nothing new, though on Black shows it has been less common outside of Idris Elba on The Wire and Lennie Smith on Jericho. It’s been seen even less in comedy, and seldom from Black women.   Toks Olagundoye from The Neighbors is the exception to the lack of Black female Brit talent on American sitcoms.  Now The Neighbors, a show about a normal family from the city that buy a house in a suburban subdivision of aliens from outer space who all dress alike and have names of celebrities, is a show that you definitely should not judge by its pilot, which was barely watchable. Yet like Guys With Kids, the actors make the questionable material work, thanks to veteran actor Jami Gertz, but also Brit actor Simon Templeton as Larry Bird and Ms. Olagundoye who plays his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  While as an alien slowly getting turned around to Earth customs taught by new neighbors the Weavers, Toks (a cute shortening of Olatokunbo, her full first name) is often the first to point out the silliness and hypocrisy, of many Earth customs – often with a sarcastic and maddening English spark, especially when Larry Bird takes them at face value.  Her comic timing is very on point, and works tightly with her co-stars.  And let’s face it, she’s much cuter than ALF.  So nothing against American actors of course, but sometimes these Brits have a way of jazzing material up.  Must be all that tea. 

The long and short of it all is that the best Black sitcom characters, aside from having some combination of the above virtues, don’t act like subordinates to the other cast members.  That was my main problem with Winston last season on New Girl, but less so now. Though, that’s my problem with Echo Kellum on Ben & Kate, though I’ll give him some more time to get into his role. 

That’s it for today folks.  Look out after Christmas for ‘The YEAR in Black Television’ where I’ll review the best shows and their moments, as well as lament on those we lost.  Happy Holidays!

Follow Shadow And Act Contributor Curtis John on Twitter (@MediaManWatchand check out his blog, brotherfromadiffrentworld.tumblr.com


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