It’s a risky proposition: finding comedy in the everyday of an infamous neighborhood that consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous in Chicago, and the country. But Chicago natives – and brothers – Bashir and Sultan Salahuddin have done just that with their new half-hour series “South Side.” Co-created with Salahuddin’s former fellow “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” writer Diallo Riddle, the trio’s priority is ultimately to demystify, and more importantly humanize, the community of Englewood and challenge established – though incomplete – perceptions of the city.
The workplace has been the setting for several comedy show premises, likely in part because having a good sense of humor is necessary to survive the bureaucracy, diverse personalities and at times mind-numbing tedium that can come with the environment. But few movies or TV shows have been willing (or perhaps capable) of expressing just how soul destroying working an especially low-paying, dead-end job can truly be. Enter “South Side,” an aspirational, scripted comedy set in and around Rent-T-Own, a rental-purchase business in the predominantly working class, African American neighborhood of Englewood.
At the center of the series are two friends (Sultan Salahuddin as Simon James, and Kareme Young as Kareem “K” Odom) who just graduated from community college and are now ready to take over the world. But until then, they’re stuck working at Rent-T-Own, a retail-rental crossroads where “South Side’s” vast ensemble of characters – a throng of microserfs and a few misfits – intersect. Despite the obstacles of inner-city life, these friends – also small-time hustlers on the side – strive to achieve their entrepreneurial dreams.
As some of the duo’s workday is spent repossessing defaulted goods, this gives “South Side” a reason to peek into the lives of the neighborhood’s residents in one hilarious scenario after another. Each character comes with their own share of snappy zingers and disposable cracks, and the beauty of it all is that, over the course of “South Side’s” 10-episode first season, even the most peripheral of characters becomes distinctly defined, quirks and all. Although much of the show’s humor draws from the disarray and claustrophobia of Rent-T-Own, this delightful mix of at-times painfully awkward moments, sincere emotion, and hilarious workplace antics make all these characters endearing.
In addition to the series’ two leads, other cast standouts include Chandra Russell as Sergeant Turner, a police officer with questionable ethics whose self-interest trumps all. Paired with the more straightlaced, status-seeking partner Officer Goodnight (Bashir Salahuddin), the two cops make for a hysterical duo as they patrol the neighborhood, routinely clashing over constituent disputes, while also serving as obstructions for the episodic petty schemes of stars Simon and Kareem, including hawking black-market Viagra right out of Rent-T-Own.
Also, there is Kareem’s twin brother Quincy (played by his real-life brother Quincy Young), Rent-T-Own’s manager and the only adult in the room serving as the series’ voice of reason, whose day-to-day mostly involves motivating his passionless employees.
Fast-paced, “South Side’s” tempo is unrelenting, and the jokes come quickly and often. Rent-T-Own may be the most boring business ever, but the folks who work there, and the customers they serve, are anything but. Thought-provoking and often irreverent, it takes potshots at political correctness (there’s humor to be found in just about every topic, from child-support squabbles to even Coretta Scott King), and lampoons workplace culture with verve.
It strives to be topical without being unduly political, which would probably be tempting against the backdrop of one of the most racist administrations in recent U.S. history, led by a president who has repeatedly made Chicago a target of his vileness. Instead, the series prioritizes the everyday trials and triumphs of the diverse members of a Chicago community, presenting them and their stories as universal, which in turn makes the show accessible to audiences who are unfamiliar with the local way of life beyond the single story that the national media peddles.
Brought to life by local Chicagoans, both in front of and behind the camera, “South Side” succeeds in what it sets out to do: give viewers a more complete, if humorous depiction of life on Chicago’s south side. The creators and cast know this world intimately, and instead of turning their camera on the usual crime and poverty, they find the humor that exists within the mayhem. Issues like corruption within local law enforcement, as well as racial and income inequity are not typical fodder for comedy, but the series is able to tackle them all (and more) humorously enough while never feeling like it’s trivializing them.
Premiering on Comedy Central on July 24 at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT, “South Side” is 10 extremely funny and at times very uncomfortable episodic looks at life in one of the most discussed and denigrated working class African American neighborhoods in the country.
First season guest stars include Lil Rel Howery, Nathaniel “Earthquake” Stroman, Jeff Tweedy, LisaRaye McCoy, Kel Mitchell and Ed Lover.
“South Side” is available on HBO Max.