The State of Sitcoms on Primetime Television Remains Dire
Three new shows will make you ask, "Am I supposed to laugh here?"
- The Neighborhood. CBS. Monday, October 1, 8 p.m.
- Happy Together. CBS. Monday, October 1, 8:30 p.m.
- I Feel Bad. NBC. Thursday, October 4, 9:30 p.m.
Not all modern television technology has been for the better. I, for one, much preferred the days when sitcoms aired with manufactured laugh tracks rather than the sound of dying pigs screaming in Hell, which is mostly what I hear when watching this week's new fall comedies.
Some of them are one-note. Some of them are no notes. Some of them have flat lead characters; others have lead characters you'll want to mount on a spit and roast over open coals before using the toxic carcass to poison your neighbor's yappy little dog. None of them will tempt you to laugh, though you may feel a sharp desire to send death threats to their producers.
Start with Amy Poehler, who, it's useful to remember, not only did Saturday Night Live but also Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. She created—it feels like the phrase "inflicted upon us" might be better here—I Feel Bad, which stars Sarayu Blue (Monday Mornings) as Emet, one of those super-charged and self-obsessed yuppie moms who are always telling you about how it's just exhausting carting their kids to dance, gymnastics and Sanskrit classes while donating blood to mad-cow disease victims in the Himalayas, the not-very-subtext being that she's your moral superior. (And, in this particular case, more sexually desirable to the nerds at the video-game company where she works, which seems kind of a low bar to me, but whatever.)
That women like Emet exist is beyond question, but most people would rather hang themselves from a hat rack in their office cubicle than engage with them. I Feel Bad's title will seem like profound prophecy to anybody who watches.
If I Feel Bad is a solid contender to become America's most annoying TV series, Happy Together has got a good shot at being the most preposterous. The show's premise: A young pop star (think Justin Bieber minus the tattoos) accidentally blunders into the home of a sedate married couple and decides it's more fun watching TV with them than doing X with groupies. So, imagine Kanye West hanging in my living room while we watch Gilligan's Island reruns and you've pretty much got it.
To the extent that there's a coherent thought in Happy Together's empty head, it is that 35 is the new 50. That sedate married couple is played by Daman Wayans Jr. and Amber Dawn Stevens (The Carmichael Show), ages 36 and 32, respectively. As for the pop-idol interloper, he's played by Felix Mallard, a giant soap star in Australia, where charisma is apparently measured much differently.
It's probably not fair to lump The Neighborhood into the rest of this mess. A show about a New Age white guy and his family moving from the Midwest into an "affordable" (read: "black") neighborhood in Southern California, The Neighborhood has a whiff of Norman Lear's hardball, politically frank comedies of the 1970s. And at times it's a scathing satire of bubblehead white progressivism, which is something Hollywood surely doesn't do enough of. But it's also a one-note comedy that stops being funny long before the closing credits role.
Created by Jim Reynolds, a long-time producer on The Big Bang Theory, The Neighborhood stars Max Greenfield (New Girl) and Beth Behrs (2 Broke Girls) as the Johnsons, an earnestly New Age couple from Michigan. She's a principal at a progressive school who looks forward to learning exotic inner-city slang like "throwing shade," while he's a conflict mediator and devout believer in what one of his new neighbors will soon refer to as "touchy-feely fairytale-type crap."
That neighbor is Calvin Butler (Cedric the Entertainer), who has both a neighborhood auto-repair shop and a strong affinity for Archie Bunker, albeit with a different skin tone. He is not at all keen on having white people living next door and orders his family to perform a freeze-out. "A white guy trying to shake your hand?" Calvin demands of one of his grown-up kids. "Stay woke, son."
In some ways, The Neighborhood is an inverted version of All in the Family, an attempt at a comic exploration of American race relations from a crusty black perspective. The jokes often aren't exactly jokes. Argues one of the Butlers: "Black people can't be racist. We can be racial, no 'cist.'" The Johnsons see themselves as credentialed members of the The Resistance; the Butlers view them more as patronizing social-engineer invaders.
But perceptiveness alone will not carry a sitcom; it's got to have jokes. And The Neighboorhood relies far too much on the novelty of a black character spouting edgy lines that we're more accustomed to hearing from a white mouth.
It may be that The Neighborhood will expand its focus and its appeal once it gets past the pilot. That would nice; it's well-intentioned, and Cedric the Entertainer delivers his lines with a prickly panache. And possibly even better is Sheaun McKinney as one of the Butler sons, who quietly observes the crestfallen reaction of the Johnsons to their ostracism and offers a sad summation: "It's hard when you see yourself one way, and the rest of the world sees you the other way." A hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, that's America.