‘White Famous’ Review: Jay Pharoah’s ‘Californication’ Knock-Off Is Shallower and Less Funny

Apparently "White Famous" means becoming David Duchovny.
White Famous Jay Pharoah Jamie Foxx Showtime
"White Famous"
Michael Desmond / Showtime

“Californication,” the David Duchovny-led Showtime comedy that ran for seven seasons (yes, seven) in the early aughts, had enough flaws that no one should want to copy it. For one, it may have been the last “woe-is-me rich white man” story to sneak in under the cultural cut-off point, and even Duchovny’s considerable charms couldn’t get it an extension past Season 4. Then there was the casual objectification of women (despite Hank Moody’s knightly intentions), rehashed romantic arcs, and truly awful supporting characters.

White Famous” fixes the first problem by focusing on an up-and-coming black actor (played by Jay Pharoah), but brings in a slew of new ones, all while creating a carbon copy of “Californication” that’s as flat as Duchovny’s abs and half as interesting. Tom Kapinos’ new Showtime comedy is almost exactly like his old one, except Pharoah’s Floyd Mooney isn’t stuck in a city he hates out of love for his family; he’s stuck falling ass backwards into money and won’t stop complaining about it.

Just take a look at this astounding list of similarities:

  • Hank Moody is played by David Duchovny.
  • Floyd Mooney is played by Jay Pharoah.
  • Hank’s happy place is New York, but his family forces him to move to L.A.
  • Floyd’s happy place is stand-up comedy, but his family (kind of) forces him into acting.
  • Hank has a kid with Karen (Natasha McElhone), a woman he’s still close with, but they’re separated.
  • Floyd has a kid with Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman), a woman he’s close with, but they’re separated.
  • Hank has an incredibly inappropriate agent named Charlie (Evan Handler) who makes him look like an upstanding father.
  • Floyd has an incredibly inappropriate agent named Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who makes him look like less of a creep.
  • Hank loves something pure and simple: writing books.
  • Floyd loves something pure and simple: making people laugh.
  • Hank sleeps around a lot.
  • Floyd sleeps around a little.
  • Hank has a nice car that impresses people.
  • Floyd has a nice car that impresses people.
  • Hank objectifies women, but doesn’t mean to.
  • Floyd objectifies women, but doesn’t care.

There’s an interesting story here about black entertainers who have to conform to a the old and white ways of an old and white film industry, but “White Famous” is barely interested in discussing these systematic issues. There’s an unfunny joke about being too hard on Bill Cosby that, at best, is meant to ruffle the feathers of a sensitive white director, and a number of caucasian businessmen tie themselves into knots to avoid being racist to Floyd.

White Famous Jay Pharoah Lonnie Chavis Showtime Episode 3

The series’ most pointed attack is on black men being forced to wear drag in studio comedies. It’s Floyd’s big opportunity. Jamie Foxx wants him to wear a dress in his movie, but Floyd promised his dad he wouldn’t do that because, well, the “why” is kind of unclear. Though he touches on the problematic nature of this imagery, he also has a fantasy sequence where his penis disappears. Is he worried about what wearing a dress symbolizes? Is he protective of his cultural identity? Is he concerned with what his son might think? Or is he just worried women won’t have sex with him anymore?

This kind of scatter-brained logic hampers more than just this story. In fact, the series comes off especially tone deaf in its pilot episode thanks to a poorly timed story arc about a sexist, powerful Hollywood producer. When Floyd, through no effort of his own, gets a meeting with a big-time producer (played by former “Californication” co-star Stephen Tobolowsky), he swings by his mansion in the hills for a business meeting. It may not be a hotel, but the producer comes out wearing a robe, a speedo, and pesters Floyd for pictures of his girlfriend’s breasts and “bubble butt.”

And even setting aside the thorny trappings of a Harvey Weinstein comparison, the series illustrates a casual sexism that’s concerning. In the pilot, there are more women who appear naked without speaking and without being given a name than there are speaking roles for women. Those naked women appear in front of multiple men at once, too, and one of these nameless sex objects doesn’t know another man is staring at her. That Floyd lets it happen and casually refers to another actress as a “bitch” does little to endear him to our audience. (Hank, mind you, would never stand for such things.)

White Famous Cleopatra Coleman Jay Pharoah Showtime Episode 1

Mooney’s biggest concern is losing himself to the system. Just as Moody was an antagonistic asshole on purpose to scare away any self-absorbed Los Angelenos, Mooney wants no part of acting. He just wants to do stand-up, and it’s a bit unclear why he keeps agreeing to his agent’s demands. Sometimes it’s for his son. Sometimes it’s because it’s “your dream.” Sometimes it’s because he wants to say hi to one of his heroes, Mr. Jamie Foxx.

But the lack of clarity means there’s no investment in Mooney’s “plight.” If the worst thing he has to do in life is co-star in a movie, his problems aren’t big enough for the small screen. His only relatable predicament is Sadie, but through three episodes, there’s no explanation for why they remain broken up (or why they broke up in the first place). At least “Californication” gave us a clear reason to keep Hank and Karen apart. “White Famous” just asks the audience to accept there’s a problem without bothering to mention one.

If Kapinos’ new show was a charming update of his dated work, perhaps we could let the less glaring faults slide. But version 2.0 has more bugs than the original, raising the question: Why care about Mooney when Moody was more than enough?

Grade: D+

“White Famous” premieres Sunday, Oct. 15 at 10 p.m. ET.

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