When I think of the sitcoms that raised me, I don’t usually think of “Smart Guy,” and for that I am sorry.
“Smart Guy” often gets lost in the pantheon of sitcom lore, eclipsed by decades of long-running predecessors like “Full House,” “Fresh Prince,” and more. Created by Danny Kallis, the series stars Tahj Mowry as T.J. Henderson, a 10-year-old genius who skips from fourth to tenth grade and has to navigate high school with older kids — including his two siblings. It ran from 1997 to 1999 on the WB and aired reruns on the Disney Channel until 2003.
That’s when I and many other young millennials found the exceptional series. “Smart Guy” became the foundation of my sitcom education in tandem with “Boy Meets World,” a post-school package deal viewing (usually with my dad sharing the couch). In the years that followed, “Boy” moved to ABC Family, but “Smart Guy” disappeared from my viewing rotation. The DVDs were elusive when home video models shifted, so the show was barely accessible until it hit Disney+ in 2019. When I finally rewatched “Smart Guy,” it was more than a nostalgic rewatch; the series is charming, hilarious, and eminently watchable even divorced from my existing fondness for it. While most dated sitcoms evoke a viewer’s prior attachment to a show — that “Aw, I loved this as a kid” feeling — I was struck by how much I love “Smart Guy” as an adult.
The show stars Jason Weaver as brother Marcus, John Marshall Jones as father Floyd, Essence Atkins as sister Yvette, and Omar Gooding as Marcus’ bumbling best friend Mo. They gel instantly as an ensemble where other sitcoms — and shows at large — sometimes struggle to find the right chemistry, character combinations, and beats for a cast. Marcus and Mo’s friendship in particular remains a delightful constant through serious fights and inevitable sitcom hijinks (like sneaking out of the house to host a late-night radio show and falling asleep in the Hendersons’ kitchen). Gooding’s Mo finds a special sweet spot between comic relief and emotional resonance, not to mention that he pairs well with any member of the Henderson family for unique and consistently satisfying storylines. Jones’ Floyd is a top-tier sitcom dad, whether he’s trying to support a genius, guide a wayward teen, not let his daughter miss her mother, or handle his own business and dating life (he’s also strikingly handsome and 38, which did a real number on this 32-year-old fan when she dove back into the show).
The timing of “Smart Guy” may have worked against cementing it as TV legend, but it also led to one of the most wholesome and evergreen sitcoms out there. It’s generally free of politically incorrect “of the time” humor, culturally relevant even now, and astutely apolitical (except for two strategic Clarence Thomas jokes and a reference to someone’s “cheating Arkansas ass”). Marcus and Mo are every girl-crazy sitcom boy of the era, but it’s they — not the women — who are the butt of every romantic exploit. There are episodes referencing alcohol and sex, even one on the dangers of online chatrooms and predatory adults — all of which passed Disney’s strict censorship of the time and deftly tackling all topics in a way that is accessible for parents, teens, and kids.
More pointedly: “Smart Guy” is a genuine blast. The jokes are as sharp as any modern sitcom (“You don’t understand how a will works, do you?” Floyd tells an offensive Marcus), the hokier sitcom punchlines delivered with expert rhythm and timing (“How many times do I have to tell you, no experimenting on humans!”). I went 20 years without watching this show, but whole plot lines (T.J. stages a sit in!), jokes (“Flody!”), and theme song lyrics (as well as Mackadocious’ “Don’t Hate Me For Being a Dog”) shot right to the surface of my brain as soon as I pressed play. The prolific guest star roster includes Taraji Henson, Paul Dano, a tap dancing Dulé Hill, and Destiny’s Child (I’m also partial to Dann Florek’s Coach Gerber).
And upon revisiting, “Smart Guy” presents an interesting undercurrent: That T.J. is a pint-sized egomaniac pulling all his loved ones into his chaotic orbit. It’s strongest in the first season (seven episodes, a midseason premiere) and then calms down, but young Mowry does unhinged genius better than anyone then and most now. The actor has teased a possible “Smart Guy” reboot since 2020. In 2022, he reunited with Jones on “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” prompting countless nostalgic comments and pleas for a reunion. Though there haven’t been many updates on that front, the comfort of Piedmont High and the Henderson home are just clicks away thanks to Disney+, a faster binge than most comfort shows and a buoyant walk down memory lane. Reboot or not, “Smart Guy” deserves all the love.
“Smart Guy” is now streaming on Disney+.