CBS is not a network known for its diversity, especially in its half-hour comedies. After criticism reached a fever pitch, its new series orders for 2018-19 comedies included Happy Together and The Neighborhood, which are both led by black actors in lead or co-lead roles. For the first series, you have two go-to, rising stars in the comedy television space. For the second, you have two legends that anchored some of the most iconic black sitcoms in history.
But as far as these new shows go, one is a bit sweet, but the other is a bit sour:
Sometimes the casting of a television series can salvage a ridiculous premise or plot. This is absolutely the case for Happy Together.
The series is headlined by Damon Wayans, Jr. and Amber Stevens West, who star with Australian soap actor Felix Mallard in his American television debut. Landing Wayans for the pilot was a coup for the show and the network, as Wayans was the most in-demand actor of pilot season.
Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS
After years of providing crucial, key supporting roles on multiple comedies, in their first true lead roles on television, Wayans and Stevens West (considering the latter is much more of a co-lead here than in The Carmichael Show), make comedy magic on-screen, proving that good work can always overcome any faults.
Granted, the premise of the show overall isn’t that bad. But it reads like an early 2000s television movie: “a comedy about a 30-something happily married couple who begin to reconnect with their younger, cooler selves when Cooper (Felix Mallard), an exuberant young pop star drawn to their super-ordinary suburban life, unexpectedly moves in with them.” But one does have to wonder how long this premise can last outside of the first few episodes.
Wayans and Stevens West make the most of every moment on screen, with jokes and punchlines littered throughout, making me wonder if any of it is improv. The script isn’t that stellar, but due to their performances and on-screen chemistry, it’s not a big deal. Both play off each other extremely well, showing off their comedic chops. Mallard is quite well alongside them, but make no mistake, though he’s the pop star within the show, his co-stars are the ones who run Happy Together.
Time will tell if we’ll remain Happy Together, but all Stevens West and Wayans have to do is continue to do more of the same, and we’ll be alright.
Before viewing the series, I was a bit upset that the talented actors would be wasted on such a series with a contrived premise, but the end product is not half-bad.
But what happens in the other new CBS comedy is a disappointing waste of not just talented actors, but comedy legends…
With black sitcom royalty Cedric The Entertainer and Tichina Arnold, along with Max Greenfield and Beth Behrs, stars of two of the most notable comedies of the 2010s -- that should be a perfect formula for a new comedy, right? If The Neighborhood has anything to anything to say about that, the answer is no.
The Neighborhood on CBS is a shaky attempt at telling a stories about two neighbors of different backgrounds and personalities.
The official description: When Dave Johnson (Max Greenfield) and his family arrive from Michigan, they're unfazed that their new dream home is located in a community quite different from their small town. However, their opinionated next-door neighbor, Calvin Butler (Cedric the Entertainer), is wary of the newcomers, certain that they'll disrupt the culture on the block. Dave realizes that fitting into their new community is more complex than he expected, but if he can find a way to connect with Calvin, they have an excellent chance of making their new neighborhood their home. Arnold plays Calvin’s wife, Tina and Behrs plays Dave’s wife, Gemma. Sheaun McKinney and Marcel Spears play the Calvin and Tina’s sons.
Photo: Bill Inoshita/CBS
And this attempt at a culture-clash comedy about a friendly white guy who is a fish out of water in a predominantly black neighborhood, for now, is a miss.
The problem is that The Neighborhood thinks it is a Norman Lear comedy, flipped. But it is sadly not, especially in the pilot, which has extremely cringeworthy moments, such as one of the white characters suggesting a black character may be racist….to a moment early in the pilot where Dave and Gemma’s son counts the number of black people he sees as they drive into the neighborhood for the first time.
Then of course, a pilot episode full of awkwardness and microaggressions ends with a heart-to-heart with one of the Johnsons as Dave realizes that his emotions about feeling out-of-place in the new neighborhood sum up how black people must feel every day.
All of the actors, especially Cedric and Tichina, make the most of what’s given to them despite of it all. It’s just a maddening to think that such comedy greats as these two (Arnold especially, since she’s coming off of an Emmy-worthy turn on LeBron James’ Survivor’s Remorse on Starz) are saddled down to a show like this where they can’t thrive.
While I’m still not sold on The Neighborhood after a couple of more episodes, I will say that it does get marginally better and based on the strength of the actors alone, I want to stay tuned to see what they’ll do next. And maybe a few more episodes in, we’ll get fully out of the premise’s trappings and slide into a true, fun sitcom about Odd Couple-esque neighbors, with less problematic ways of approaching racial differences.
Happy Together and The Neighborhood debut October 1 on CBS.