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

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

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

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Comments

ALM

What's wrong with "The Jeffersons"? I could never find "Family Time" in Bounce's line up. It must have been on during the same time that some huge show like "The Voice" is on. The previews of FBOW turned me (and several others) off. It's one thing to see Tasha and Michael go at it for a few minutes here and there in a movie. It's quite another thing for her to play to stereotypes each week by screaming at her husband. TRSS is so bad that I felt as if they literally lifted lines from other shows by watching a marathon of random shows on the couch. I like Rickey as a comedian, but something went very wrong in the creation of this show. The monster ratings have been due to 1. Curiosity (to see if the show is any good) 2. People are so starved for a decent sitcom, that they are settling for sub par shows for the time being (until the next "Fresh Prince", "A Different World", etc. comes along). Speaking of which, Quincy Jones really should consider starting a mult-week boot camp television writing and production course. Even though "In the House" isn't listed in most African American's top twenty sitcoms of all time, I really enjoyed the show. "In the House" is 20 times better than most of the sitcoms we have to choose from now.

Celtics Fan

We still have some good sitcoms. What about 'The First Family','Mr Box Office', 'Soul Man', and 'Guys With Kids'?
BTW I think For Better Or Worse is underated.That's one of my favorite shows right now.

JMac

I'll have to respectfully disagree with GiGi re:most of our classic shows were written, created, etc… by whites so that's why the current ones suck. Overall, shows that we look up to as standards were written by (or primarily by), definitely created by, regular produced by black folks. Good Times, What's Happening, The Jeffersons, Cosby Show, A Different World, Living Single, Bernie Mac Show, Everybody Hates Chris, Roc (even though I thought that show was pretty bad), Martin = Eric Monte, Mike Evans, Bill Cosby, Yvette Lee Bowser, Larry Wilmore, Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Warren Hutcherson, Orlando Jones, and many more. Almost all of these shows were executive produced by blacks… not sure on the directors. Sole holdouts seem to be Amen, 227, (2 shows that not many people mention as fave sitcoms – also why I'll leave out Jeff Franklin shows since his creations all sucked, white and black) and to a lesser extent Fresh Prince. Maybe that's why Will is hesitant for a black writer? I'll put my money on writers trying to dumb down everything to get either those reality show, Real Housewives audiences or the Tyler Perry crowd. Bill Cosby, Eric Monte, and Mike Evans definitely had the burden of representation on them, still got the "message" out despite any white pressure [I think there's overwhelming evidence those shows would have been even better if there were no white constraints] but I can still watch episodes and laugh or agree with most of them even though it's been 20-30 years since they last aired. It also seems like those who were good or great writers moved on to being producers, writing for white sitcoms, or just got out the business period. So I would agree a little with option (b) but still place blame on trying to get high ratings by any (desperate) means necessary rather than actually be funny.

Nadine

Not to get too deep into this convo – Modern "Black" comedy, as a whole, seems to have writers that believe comedy must always be at the expense of the dignity of others. "Oooh he/she ugly!" (laugh track), "Look at his pants, he's a hot mess!" (laugh track), "Ain't she on crack?" (laugh track), "Chile, your breath stink" (laugh track) plus some overbearing unlikeable female and some kind of embarrassingly delusional older man and many other tropes we place upon our own heads. This manifestation of self-hatred/unkindness is not exactly "feel good TV"; it is a crutch where good writing is not even an after thought. Nothing is smart, anymore. It's like their writers never read or developed their understanding of mankind. These shows are most often unbelievable situations, with unbelievably annoying, mean and over-bearing people. People whom you would not want be around in real life, so why would you want to watch them on TV?

CareyCarey

THE SILENT KILLER, Ms. Gigi Young! @ Gigi, it goes without question that all of us come to this blog for a myriad of reasons. When I see the name (in the side column) of a writer; commentator, staff, visitor or whomever, that I've found "pleasure" – in the past – from "listening" to them, I'm all over it. Regardless of the "topic", they get my full attention. You, Ms. Gigi – have become one of them. Listen, I even go as far as to copy and paste their words in a little folder I've titled "Stolen Jokes, Lines, Thoughts/Insight". Presently there are about 20 "members" in the exclusive club (exclusive by my standards anyway :-) which includes the words and thoughts of Mr. Adam "Coon Hunter" Thompson, Sergio, Charles Judson, Nadia, Akimbo, Bondgirl, Mark & Darla, Lauren, Jug, Misha, Nadine, Urbanauteur, Blutopaz, Accidental V, Tambay, Curtis John and "Anonymous". That reminds me, I've assigned each member a nickname, hence, "The Silent Killer", aka Gigi Young. I'll get back to that. Also, I didn't list a couple of names b/c I had reservations on whether or not they'd… you know… have any desire to be associated with my stankin' club of critical thinkers of the S&A talk-back forum. *lol* Now, although Gigi doesn't post as often as others, and she's not as "loud" nor abrasive as many on my list, her comments are always very poignant and unapologetic. Case in point, her words–> "I watch a lot of old movies… I started to pay attention to how the black actors were portrayed, as well as how black characters–when they were given their own storylines–were as well. It's not simply the Mammy stuff we tend to think of. Though Hollywood did keep those old minstrel show stereotypes alive, the disappearance of black actors from Hollywood films after the '50s due to the Civil Rights movement is UNSETTLING to see. So it was/is a double-edged sword for black actors." And in Gigi's last comment (below) she basically said because of the "push-back" from the black community when race or the actor's skin color becomes an issue, and the subsequent positions the power players find themselves in, black writers and actors are receiving less of an opportunity to hone their skills. And thus, less opportunity equals less experience, which culminates to an inferior product (i.e. poorly-written, badly acted, less talented, corny, lacks imagination, lacks originality, lacks depth, ete-etc-etc). Yes sir, the short yet effective "The Silent Killer" has spoken… loud and clear.

Alleycat

We'll see how BET does with Being Mary Jane, The Start Up, Young Man on Campus, What Would Dylan do and their other attempts at original programming. Fingers crossed I'll like something. And Singles Ladies may be subpar, but it's the only "black" show I've watched weekly in the last two years, that's saying something.

Gigi Young

shows starring and created by Black talent

I always have a small ironic and bitter laugh when I see so many lament over the lack of black sitcoms because a large majority of those we consider to be ~classics~ were produced, created, directed, and/or written by white TV execs. :/ And then when I look at the sitcoms produced, created, directed, and/or written by black TV execs, and the general consensus from black viewers is that they are corny, poorly-written, badly acted, etc etc, the uncomfortable questions then raised are: a) black people in TV are ~less~ talented? b) black people in TV ~less~ talented because they aren't given the opportunity to grow in their skills like their white counterparts? or c) black people in TV so caught up in the burdens of being a black writer/producer/director/creator (aka authenticity/being down +~positive~ images, which, to be fair, are regularly placed on black entertainment creators by white execs and black audiences) that they cannibalize their great talent? Because when you look at something like Awkward Black Girl, which stepped completely out of the "black TV" box of the last ten years, I can't help but think it's option (c), though option (b) may also be an answer as well.

Cherish

Now why did you have to diss The Jeffersons? It was only the longest running Black sitcom – and its funny as hell. I'll watch reruns of Jeffersons all day over 90 percent of what's on broadcast TV. And it's funny as hell – actual laugh out loud show. Jeez. Yeah, I said funny as hell twice. I meant it too. LOL.

Adam Scott Thompson

Heard some good things about "Are We There Yet?" on TBS. Thinking about checking that out.

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