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This Week in Black Television: Whatever Happened to the Black Sitcom? pt. 1

Shadow and Act By Curtis Caesar John | Shadow and Act November 2, 2012 at 3:14PM

It is quite obvious these days that there aren’t many good quality Black sitcoms on the air.  And there aren’t any, good or not-so-good ones, on primetime TV.  We do have The Game on BET, which I cover regularly in this column, but shows with original concepts and stand-out Black talent have got us like a fat kid and cake: coveting it now. 
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cast of For Better or Worse (courtesy of TBS)
cast of For Better or Worse (courtesy of TBS)

It is quite obvious these days that there aren’t many good quality Black sitcoms on the air.  And there aren’t any, good or not-so-good ones, on primetime TV.  We do have The Game on BET, which I cover regularly in this column, but shows with original concepts and stand-out Black talent have got us like a fat kid and cake: coveting it now. 

It may not be fair to compare these shows to The Cosby Show, Roc, A Different World or even Living Single, but can they at least be good enough to compare them to The Jeffersons?  Heck, can we ask them to be good enough so we can compare them to Moesha (which started and ended badly but had many great moments in between)?

So what Black sitcoms – and by that I simply mean shows starring and created by Black talent – are out there and which ones are worth watching?  I’ll list a few with my opinions of them and if you haven’t watched them, you can check them out – or not – for yourself. 

Family Time

The first produced show on the BOUNCE tv network, a station I actually enjoy from time to time with little seen movies with Black actors like Greased Lightning and The Liberation of L.B. Jones., the sitcom Family Time stars Omar Gooding as Tony Stallworth, a blue-collar worker who wins $500,000 in the lottery and moves his family out of the Los Angeles ‘hood to a middle-class LA enclave.  Co-starring as Tony’s wife Lisa is grown-up one-time video girl Angell Cornwell - recently of the soap The Young and the Restless as well as Gooding’s co-star in John Singleton’s Baby Boy – a young woman who grew up in the same subdivision the Stallworth’s now live.  Cornwell plays good off of Gooding, especially when they loosen up in later episodes and get used to each other. Omar Gooding himself is an always-likeable television actor with good timing capable of making the best out of what’s given to him.  In his short lived series Barbershop (2005), based off of the movie and co-starring Toni Trucks of the recently canceled Made In Jersey (note: the show was so corny, wasn’t even worth a write up in this column), Gbenga Akinnegbe from The Wire, and acting vet Barry Shabaka Henley, the most under-appreciated Black show of recent history, Gooding juggled dealing with multiple female leads (to me something he does best) like Trucks’ character Terri, his wife Jen (played by Anna Brown), and his mother (sitcom and stage vet Roz Ryan), among others. 

In Family Time his overbearing mother is played by Judyann Elder, an actress you may have seen in various shows and movies since the 1970’s.  A graduate from the arts-friendly institution of Emerson College, she is a founding member and resident actor with the Tony Award winning Negro Ensemble Company and originated roles in plays such as Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (co-written by now deceased ex-husband Lonne Elder III, screenwriter of Sounder, Melinda, A Woman Called Moses, among other classic Black-starring and themed vehicles); Elder toured with the company internationally and later made her Broadway debut as Coretta King opposite Billy Dee Williams in “I Have A Dream”.  I say all that to say that Elder has gravitas and displays her stage skills as Tony’s annoying mother, the Lisa-hating Beverly. 

With all those family sitcom standards in place, enter the annoying kids: Jayla Calhoun as Ebony, whose cuteness and timing make her bearable for now and the wanna-be-cool Devin played by the overacting Bentley Kyle Evans Jr., son of executive producer Bentley Kyle Evans of Martin and The Jamie Foxx Show-fame, who is also he co-creator of this show along with Trenten Gumbs. 

My overall feel is that show is decent.  While many of the situations and pacing are mirrored by if you’ve regularly watched five normal sitcoms in your lifetime, you’ve seen Family Time.  The theme song is very gospel-y/Good Times-like for me, as is the silly dancing each cast member does (you can’t replicate The Cosby Show’s openings, so stop trying all!).  Still, Gooding as I’ve mentioned is on-point again as a man working to do better for his family and himself and Cornwell commands her leading lady role for all it’s worth, with a little ‘hood, a little good girl, and a little mommy-ing mélange.    They make the show worth tuning into each week.  Having premiered this past summer, there’s still no word on if it is coming back for a second season. 

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

For Better or Worse

While Tyler Perry’s latest sitcom, first premiering last November, is based on his Why Did I Get Married? movies, they are really only so in spirit and character names alone as Michael Jai White’s Marcus Williams and TV wife Tasha Smith as Angela Williams navigate the ups-and-downs of married life in their trouble-filled upscale urban life.

They are raising a son MJ, played by the seldom-growing Bobb’e J. Thompson (does he have a Gary Coleman-type physical problem?) and ex football player Marcus spends his days with co-partners Richard (Kent Faulcon) and Joseph (Jason Olive) on their sports television show while Tasha runs her successful hair salon while her best friend Leslie (Cyrstle Stewart) hears all about her crazy troubles.  The show, as some critics nicely summed up as part-situation comedy/part opulent soap opera has a lot of dramatic storylines touching on infidelity, lost lovers resurfacing, and basically a whole lot of lying and half-truths to blow up past the point of importance.  

Like a soap opera, For Better has a lot of wealthy pretty people with problems that they’re created all on their own and it’s obviously targeted toward an audience of that liking.  However the only thing worse than the writing is the acting.  Both White and Smith are normally engaging actors, and were the standouts in the Tyler Perry movies, but for whatever reasons the script and everyone’s execution of it is painful. The show feels rushed, which given the stated back-to-back-to-back shooting schedules that Perry’s shows employ (as do shows like Anger Management) should probably be no surprise.  I’m hoping the show got better in its second half of season two as it pained me to watch earlier episodes. If you feel it has, please share. 

Rating: 2 out of 5

The Rickey Smiley Show

Although premiering to unprecedented ratings for TV1 with 835,000 nationwide viewers in primetime, comedian and radio host Rickey Smiley’s first television, in which he plays a, surprise, radio show host, is really bad.  In fact, it’s unwatchable. Usually I’ll state some pros and cons of a show in order to give you a somewhat unbiased opinion but with this show I cannot. It’s really TRSS that made me want to talk about the dearth of good quality Black sitcoms in the first place.

I realize a lot of these new stations owned by Black companies for the Black audience want to create a family atmosphere of programming. I get the socio-economic reasons for doing so.  However, the acting in TRSS, especially from the lead is the worst of all and I feel that a family sitcom is the worst vehicle for him.  And the acting is bad not in a Jerry Seinfeld in the first season of Seinfeld was bad kind of bad but in a “please take at least a week of acting lessons” kind of bad.  When the best actor on the show is Ray J, you have a problem. I take that back, Roz Ryan as Aunt Sylvia is the best actor here, helping newly-divorced single dad of three Smiley around the house as he navigates his new standing.  However she appears in two out of twenty-two minutes of the show, leaving us with Smiley, his son Brandon (a sometimes good but often annoying Jay Lewis [often better known as Lil JJ]), boy hungry daughter De’Anna (Ajliona Alexus), and intelligent little Gabriel Burgess as youngest son Aaron.  Burgess is actually pretty good too, but I fear its because we’d rightfully accept less from a child actor than an adult one.   But on the skill scale the constantly corny, requisite horny old-guy radio show host, J. Anthony Brown, supplants young Burgess playing Rickey’s radio station general manager Maurice. 

Okay, so in my ranting I forgot about Noree Victoria as Rickey’s manager Simone. Related to both Eubie Blake and Penny Johnson Jerald (acc. to TV1’s website) she’s alright in her role and has some on-screen presence. It’s obvious that if she works at this she can get better.  However, Smiley brings down his own show and he’s not believable as a dad or as a should-be charming radio talk show host, despite being both in real life!

Coming back to the family angle, if they focused the show more on Rickey’s dating (Ep. 3 entitled “the Dating Game” had some funny moments in that regard) the show might actually have something going for it, even with that concept not being wholly original. The producers and writers have a lot of Tyler Perry shows in their listed credits, which make sense as the pacing of TRSS is similar to those shows. I suppose it’s the same audience, but the main issue is that all these shows seem to cater to that audience and not to a more sophisticated comedy one. 

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

The reason why many flock to online webseries like The Couple and Awkward Black Girl is because they write with more nuance and insight into the Black population and overall audience mindset (especially to the under-40 crowd) than the now average Black sitcoms do.  It’s no wonder that true Black sitcoms are practically non-existent. 

In the next installment of this topic I’ll see if Single Ladies really works for today’s audience, revisit Let’s Stay Together, and check out Black talent in other sitcoms to figure out where this genre can improve.

Follow Shadow and Act’s This Week in Black Television writer Curtis Caesar John on Twitter (@MediaManWatch) and check out his film blog, brotherfromadiffrentworld.tumblr.com

This article is related to: Black television


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