Two, new, predominantly African-American comedies premiered this fall. One is Black-ish on ABC and the other is Survivor's Remorse on Starz. It's probably not fair to pit one against the other, especially since one is on a broadcast network, owned by Disney, and the other is on a premium cable channel where nudity and cursing isn't restricted. Yet, Black-ish did have a shirtless Anthony Anderson for nearly half an episode. However, Survivor's Remorse doesn't need to show skin or drop f-bombs in order to be funny or interesting. It has a genuineness that is way more refreshing.
It's not that comedies with an all-black cast have to be genuine. African-American comedies can be wacky in fact. Martin Lawrence in Martin, Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Marlon Wayans in The Wayans Bros. are all wacky and silly. They all have the sensibilities though of being shot in front of a studio audience in the traditional, three-camera method.
Created by Kenya Barris, Black-ish isn't shot in the traditional, three-camera method, but it seems to embrace those sensibilities. The sensibilities include this inherent mode of having to be big and broad to play to people in the back row or the groundlings. As much as it might want to think it's an anomaly or unique, the show is treading on similar ground as The Bernie Mac Show or My Wife and Kids, but it doesn't further the arguments or provide material that's at all funnier.
It's probably because Anthony Anderson who stars in Black-ish as Andre Johnson, the most generic, black name ever, isn't as funny a comedian as Bernie Mac or Damon Wayans. I'm not sure if Anderson has done stand-up comedy, but he sometimes doesn't seem to be able to anchor it in a likeable way, although Bernie Mac and Damon Wayans were often annoying as their characters.
Andre's main beef in life is either the misperception or the misappropriation of black culture by white people with whom he encounters or interacts. His other grievance is his son's so-called lack of black culture. Unfortunately, the first three episodes have him virtually ignoring his two daughters and other young son, as he tries to argue that black culture is a monolith and black people can only like certain things and can only behave in certain ways.
Even though I'm not a fan of Key & Peele, which returned this fall for its fourth season on Comedy Central, ditching its studio audience framing device, what they did well was mock that kind of monolithic, black-culture idea. This was probably because Key and Peele themselves are biracial.
A lot of the push-back that Andre gets comes from his doctor of a wife named Rainbow, played by Tracee Ellis Ross. The push-back is probably because she's herself biracial. In the first episode, Andre questions her blackness as a result. Yes, it's a joke, but the offensiveness of it underscores an ignorance in Andre of the hundreds and hundreds of years of lynching and bigotries toward biracial people for being just as black in all if not most of white people's eyes.
There are legitimate questions that the show introduces that would be interesting to explore. For example, the son enjoys playing field hockey and flirts with converting to Judaism. Instead of digging into that, the show quickly squashes them, rather than opening up to them.
Of course, each of the first, three episodes end with Andre realizing his monolith is wrong. Yet, the following episode resets and has him coming down on his son all over again. Given how uptight, macho and conservative Andre is, I shutter to think how he would react to his son being gay, or how Andre's father, played by Laurence Fishburne, would react. The show's execution of this premise of a black family of some wealth in a predominantly white environment isn't as cutting or as biting a satire as The Boondocks or the other new comedic series on Starz.
Scene from "Survivor's Remorse"
Written by Mike O'Malley (Yes, Dear and Shameless) and executive produced by NBA star Lebron James, Survivor's Remorse is light-years better. Some critics have compared it to HBO's Entourage, but to me it's a mix of that and Mara Brock Akil's The Game, not necessarily in its early iteration but it's later iteration on BET. However, it has such a greater sense of reality than either those shows or Black-ish will ever have. Yet, it's still funny and laugh-out-loud so.
Jessie Usher stars as Cam Calloway who at first I thought was named Cab Calloway, one of the most unique and fun, black names ever. Cam is a professional, basketball player in Atlanta who's starting his career with his family by his side whom he's transplanting from Philadelphia. It's simply about Cam and his family having to deal with and possibly adjust to the environmental changes, socially and economically, of being in the media spotlight and clashes of cultural practice versus cultural perception.
RonReaco Lee (Sister Sister and Let's Stay Together) co-stars as Reggie, Cam's cousin and his veritable manager. Tichina Arnold (Martin and Everybody Hates Chris) plays Cam's mother Cassie whose life Cam wants to improve the most, given all the hardships and sacrifices she made raising him alone. Mike Epps (Next Friday and Next Day Air) plays Julius, the uncle who offers words of wisdom but uses his nephew's celebrity to get young girls naked and into bed. Erica Ash (The Big Gay Sketch Show and MADtv) plays Mary Charles, the lesbian sister whom Cam asks to work for him and help him. She's blunt and to-the-point, and the source of a lot of humor. Yet, all of the actors here shine.
The first episode kicks off with a great conflict that on its surface could seem ridiculous. That's fine, given this is a comedy. Mo McRae (Sons of Anarchy and Ray Donovan) guest stars as Marcus, a desperate nemesis who reminds Cam of where he came from and some mistakes he's made and raises the stakes in a way that no other recent black sitcom has or probably will.
What's remarkable is that in the climactic scene, the resolution of the conflict was written and performed in such a powerful way that conveys a wealth of subtle and complex emotion that made the humanity and intelligence of this show absolutely soar.
The second episode is just as strong. It's also such a showcase of Tichina Arnold that I would hope she gets an Emmy nomination for her work here. It walks a fine line of celebrating and criticizing black culture and never once missteps. It raises great questions in a great debate of child discipline and weaves it in a narrative that works extremely well.
Black-ish. Two Stars out of Five. Rated TV-PG-DS. Running Time: 30 mins. Wednesdays at 9:30PM on ABC.
Survivor's Remorse. Five Stars out of Five. Rated TV-MA. Running Time: 30 mins. Saturdays at 9PM on Starz.