Even the most casual television viewers likely have a distinct image in their head when they hear the phrase “CBS sitcom.” These sitcoms (The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, Man With A Plan, to name a few) are generally white- and male-led, and hinged on a broad hook (nerds with crushes, a father with kids) and even broader humor. They’re not meant to challenge viewers, but to entertain them on a purely basic, forgettable level. There are some exceptions, such as Mom (co-starring Anna Faris and Allison Janney) or the recently-canceled Superior Donuts (which co-starred Jermaine Fowler — the first black sitcom lead on a CBS sitcom in almost 20 years).
Tonight, CBS adds two new comedies to its roster: The Neighborhood and Happy Together, and both are indicative of the network’s struggle to update itself to 2018 — both star actors of color in leading roles, but both are also disappointing, and too stuck in CBS’ familiar rut.
First, the fish-out-of-water comedy The Neighborhood, which wants to join in on the growing crop of sitcoms tackling tough issues (but especially race). It’s clearly trying to follow in the classic Norman Lear sitcom footsteps, but it doesn’t have the necessary gumption. The premise — a reversal of the racist saying “There goes the neighborhood!” — is such: Dave Johnson (Max Greenfield, still with a bit of New Girl‘s Schmidt left in him), his wife Gemma (Beth Behrs), and their son Grover (Hank Greenspan) move to a black neighborhood in Los Angeles after Gemma gets a new job as principal of a “progressive” school. Their neighbors are the Butlers: cranky, outspoken patriarch Calvin (Cedric the Entertainer), his kind wife Tina (Tichina Arnold, who still hasn’t gotten her due) and their two sons Malcolm (Sheaun McKinney) and Marty (Marcel Spears).
Dave is painfully white, overly friendly, and desperate to be liked (and prove that he’s not racist) — qualities that are at immediate odds with Calvin, who expected the new neighbors to be another accomplished black family (Dave & co. share a last name with Magic and Dwayne “The Rock”) and is disappointed by the reality. He’s portrayed mostly as a cynical crank, but he has reasons to be wary: there are two types of racists, he explains to his son: “Ones that hate black people and ones that love black people.” The latter just want to feel better about themselves.
It quickly becomes obvious that The Neighborhood, for all of its lofty intentions, is not up to the task of truthfully and deeply engaging with its own premise. It only wants to provide a surface-level glance and ask the most basic of questions. The idea is that there are separate conversations happening in the Johnson and the Butler household; The Neighborhood wants to bring those conversations to the front yard, where the families can discuss their differences over a beer and a burger. The execution, to say the least, is flawed. It is only a single step above of the “black people do this but white people do that” joke construct — there is actually a scene in which Gemma is shocked to learn that black people use washcloths in the shower, while Tina is shocked to learn that white people don’t. (I won’t even touch on the scene where Gemma tries on Tina’s wig, which filled me with a deep sense of horror and rage.)
There are some OK moments, especially when it comes to the Butler brothers. Both Sheaun McKinney and Marcel Spears are gifted actors who’ve showcased their comedic timing on better, but unfortunately canceled, sitcoms last season (Great News and The Mayor, respectively). Spears’ Marty (an engineer who hangs around the house) works as the resident jokester who witnesses the ridiculousness around him but keeps a distance. McKinney’s Malcolm (unemployed and still living at home) has some great scenes with Calvin; their father/son dynamic is the most interesting relationship on the show. In fact, if this were just about the Butlers, The Neighborhood would be immediately better. Tina and Gemma are lovely as friends who roll their eyes at their husband’s behavior, but too often are shoved to the background — a disservice to the talented actresses. It’s a shame that The Neighborhood is packed with such an impressive cast, because the show does little else to make it worthwhile.
At least Happy Together knows the strengths of its stars, Amber Stevens West (The Carmichael Show) and Damon Wayans Jr. (Happy Endings), and is content to give them silly plots rather than attempting to seem more insightful than it actually is. The two play happily married couple Jake and Claire, who have fallen into a comfortable rut of going to bed early, mainlining junk food, and forgoing sex in order to keep marathoning television. Their life gets interrupted when Jake’s accounting client, mega-famous (and inspired by Harry Styles) popstar Cooper (Felix Mallard) breaks up with his equally-famous girlfriend and ends up crashing with the couple to escape the limelight.
Everything that follows in the first three episodes is about what you expect. Cooper starts to learn what it’s like to be a “normal” person while also inspiring Jake and Claire to break out of old patterns and do something new. It’s not particularly interesting and the jokes can be truly terrible (upon learning Cooper is getting a wax museum figure: “We have scented candles and this kid is becoming a candle!”) but it’s OK, it’s coherent, it’s comfortable. At times, it’s even a little fun!
What’s strange about Happy Together is that it would work even better without the show’s biggest hook. Cooper (and Mallard) is fine, and his presence is necessary to throw the couple into a mild tail-spin about aging (he sees them as surrogate parents, almost, but they scoff at the idea that they could be that old), whether or not they’ve become boring, and how they’re morphing into one person because they’ve let go of their old, individual activities. (To hammer this point home, Claire’s parents (Stephnie Weir and Victor Williams) frequently show up, acting as the ghosts of marriage future). But ultimately, he almost brings the show down because of Jake and Claire’s easygoing chemistry — and Stevens West’s and Wayans Jr.’s lively performances, which bounce off of and strengthens each other’s. There’s something delightful about watching the two of them alone in their living room, in a fair partnership — a sitcom married couple who actually love each other! So delightful, that I kept forgetting about Cooper until he pops back around.
Whereas it’s easy to predict that The Neighborhood won’t be able to right itself before it’s too late, in contrast Happy Together comes across as the easygoing (albeit forgettable) comedy that can coast along on its charm for a few years.
‘The Neighborhood’ and ‘Happy Together’ both premiere tonight, Monday, October 1.