Rel. Fox. Sunday, Sept. 9, after NFL football.
- Kidding. Showtime. Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 p.m.
Has the approach of the new fall TV season got you all atwitter with excitement? Me neither. Would it help if you knew that the very first of the fall premieres is in less than 48 hours? Take my advice—it shouldn't.
It's not that Fox's Rel, which debuts Sunday, 15 days before the big wave of new shows starts rolling in, is really so bad. It's a big, sometimes over-the-top sitcom like Good Times, The Jeffersons or the other black comedies that dominated the Nielsen ratings for much of the 1970s. But its ambitions to be something more are sadly unfulfilled.
Rel stars—and is partially written by—Lil Rel Howery (who stole a lot of scenes as the younger brother in NBC's talky sitcom The Carmichael Show). Fox is billing it as semi-autobiographical, which is true only if you think being stand-up comedian (Rel's real-life job) is close to being a doctor (his TV job). The actual similarities between Real Rel and TV Rel are that they both live in Chicago, and they're both divorced, the latter being the linchpin of the show: Rel has just learned his wife is dumping him after a lengthy affair with his barber, or, as he woundedly puts it, "my hair confidante."
The affected snottiness of that phrase is right at the heart of the show's comic path. Rel's considerable pride in his life does not usually sit well with the people from his inner-city upbringing.
His dignity takes a regular beating from his preacher dad (veteran comic Sinbad), his just-out-of-the-joint brother Nat (Jordan L. Jones, Disjointed) and various old friends from the 'hood. And it all goes into overdrive when word gets out he's been cuckolded by a barber. "Right now I'm in between barbers," Rel tells a friend in need of a haircut, who retorts, "Your wife is, too." Rel's timid ripostes don't get far. "If you ever disrespect me again," he blusters to one amused tormenter, "I'm gonna call my cousin and have him shoot up your daddy's house."
Little Rel's real-life stand-up act has always been built around keen character observation coupled with tales of personal misfortune, and the show makes good use of that, mixing slam-bang punchlines with slow-burn jokes that erupt unexpectedly. The bougie/street conflict is consistently funny without condescension, with both sides giving as good as they get.
But Rel wants to be a Rocky-like tale of redemption and rebirth, a guy rebuilding his life from the emotional ruins of a divorce, and those scenes inevitably fall flat. You can practically hear a screenwriter in the background whispering, "Your wife didn't leave you for a barber but for a refuge from a stultifying marriage from which you long ago disengaged. Now, fall on your butt." Rel's pretty good at delivering laughs, but his pathos is, well, pathetic.
Elsewhere on the purported comic front is Jim Carrey's return to television for the first time since In Living Color. Showtime, which has found great success turning comedy mean with its standup soap I'm Dying Up Here, is now trying to do the same with kindergarten TV in Kidding.
Carrey plays Jeff Pickles, a burnt-out version of Mister Rogers, shattered by the death of one of his twin sons and the subsequent desertion of his wife into what might be fairly described an unwholesome environment. (On one visit, he discovers his wife has tattooed her boobs and the kid has cryptically scrawled "BUFFALO CUNT" on the bathroom mirror.)
The boy scoffs at Pickles' entreaty that they could all get through the tragedy of the death more easily if they all stuck together. "She did not leave you because Phil died," the kid advises Pickles. "She left you because you're a pussy."
Which is kind of true. There is not much of a gap between Jeff Pickles the host of Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time and Jeff Pickles the man who plays him. Pickles offstage speaks in the same blockhead bromides he uses on screen and his naivite about every human endeavor from sex to real estate is not endearing but maddening.
And though the accident that killed his son has shaken him, the changes he's undergoing are not reassuring to his friends or family. His father and producer Sebastian (Frank Langella) is horrified when Pickles asks to do an episode for the kiddies about death, and furious when he writes a script about gender fluidity for one of the longtime puppet characters, an otter. "What's next?" demands Sebastian. "Bi Little Pony?" Quietly, the executives begin preparations to do the show without Mr. Pickles.
None of this plays as interesting or funny as it sounds on the printed page. Carrey's Mr. Pickles is tortuously unappealing, a smiley-faced drip in need of a hard slapping. And Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time itself is on the screen, it's light years past unbearable. (Its musical numbers make "Rubber Duckie" sound like "Stairway to Heaven.") I think we've found the reason for the downward spiral in the U.S. birth rate.