As Netflix goes all in on Black family sitcoms, old pros of the form give it a boost
Multicamera comedy is typically regarded as the less sophisticated, even less serious cousin of cinematic single-camera sitcoms, though there are plenty of single-camera shows that are not much good at all, while multicamera can lay claim to “I Love Lucy,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and others too numerous to name. For reasons unrelated to quality, however, relatively few of these have focused on Black characters, few enough that many feel historically significant: “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “The Cosby Show,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Family Matters,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Carmichael Show.”
Netflix, which has never identified a market it hasn’t attempted to serve, has recently added two to the list, Jamie Foxx’s “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me” and “The Upshaws,” with Mike Epps, Kim Fields and Wanda Sykes (also a co-creator); though different in approach, both shows are built around a father whom the premise requires to become more responsible, more sensitive, more adult, while also admiring the childish person within. (They are comedies, after all, starring comedians.) It’s hard to imagine either working as well single-camera style, even as it’s easy to picture Kenan Thompson’s “Kenan,” a single-camera Black family comedy, recently renewed for a second season by NBC, played as a multicamera comedy.
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Of the two, “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me,” which premiered in mid-April, is the less substantial. A family show with pot and sex jokes, it features Foxx as Brian Dixon, man of Atlanta, who has inherited a cosmetics company founded by his mother; the business supplies the odd plot point, but they are beside-the-point plot points. We never go to the office, and the rest of the cast, which prominently includes David Alan Grier as Brian’s father — who had gone to jail for “six years for smuggling half an ounce of weed in my sock on a plane” — are always in his house anyway. More significant, he has become the full-time parent of his teenage daughter, Sasha (the appealing Kyla-Drew), who has moved to Atlanta from Chicago after the death of her mother — the old bachelor father/uncle family affair.
“Dad” runs frequently to silliness, and we are focused more on the players than the people they’re playing; its appeal is largely the opportunity it affords to bask in their energy and nonsense for half an hour or multiples thereof if you’re in a mood to binge. Some of the best bits involve Foxx not as Brian but heavily costumed as other characters: a flashy, shady priest; a bartender with a thing for country music and Trump; Brian’s uncle in a vicious barbecue contest with his siblings. (The trophy is the urn that contains their father’s ashes.) It’s sketch comedy flown into a sitcom. These could all have been repeating characters on “In Living Color,” Keenan Ivory Wayans’ 20th-century series for Fox, where Foxx and Grier earlier teamed; they relate to nothing but their own noisy being. Foxx also finds random opportunities to squeeze in his Dave Chappelle and Denzel Washington and Barack Obama imitations, while Grier resurrects his “Living Color” blues singer Calhoun Tubbs: “Wrote a song about it, like to hear it, here it goes.”
As its title might indicate, “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me” is broad and farcical. When it grows politically or emotionally earnest for a line or a scene, it feels more dutiful than organic — weightless, not weighty. Simple, sentimental solutions put the lid on situations that in another series might develop in complex ways. But this is not that series, nor does it mean to be.
“The Upshaws,” on the other hand, for all the comic engineering underpinning its plots, feels unusually dimensional and naturalistic, an only slightly warped reflection of the real world. Actions have consequences, for the actors and the acted upon; problems aren’t always worked out by the end of 30 minutes. Characters are involved in relationships rather than just in situations, and the comedy comes out of personality, not just the mathematics of joke-writing.
Sykes left a job as consulting producer on the “Roseanne” revival after its star’s infamous social media meltdown, and it feels as if she might have directed some of that show’s Down But Not Yet Out in the Heartland energy into “The Upshaws.” They are not the Conners, but they are messy and surviving, in their own way. (Her co-creator Regina Y. Hicks has writing credits that go back to “Sister, Sister,” through “Girlfriends” and up to “Insecure.”)
Bennie (Epps), who runs a garage, and Regina (Kim Fields), who works in healthcare, have a 30-year history that has produced an adult son, Bernard (Jermelle Simon), and two daughters — Aaliyah (Khali Spraggins), turning 13, and 6-year-old Maya. Bennie also has a teenage son, Kelvin (Diamond Lyons), whose mother is Tasha (Gabrielle Dennis), from a decade when he and Regina were separated. (Bernard is still angry about Bennie’s absence.) Sykes plays Regina’s sister, Lucretia, who has some money from an accident settlement and hangs on to it and to most everything. (“Auntie, can I have your muffin?” Maya asks. “No, baby,” Lucretia replies, as sweetly as if she had said yes.) She does not like Bennie, nor he her.
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Kelvin might be headed down a wrong path Bennie was once headed down, though Bennie’s advice is not necessarily helpful: When Kelvin is found in possession of a teacher’s wallet and suspended, he tells him, “A teacher? Boy, didn’t I tell you teachers ain’t got no money?” But the son is also getting to know his half-sisters.
There are times when the viewer might wonder, along with Aunt Lucretia, what Regina is doing with Bennie; he really isn’t in her league. Sometimes it’s as if the writers themselves have had to drag him by the collar away from his friends and back home to his family."The Upshaws” goes to some familiar comic places — a character ordering an expensive dinner he can’t pay for or double-booking events. A little too much time is allotted to Sykes and Epps insulting each other; it’s repetitious and annoying and not all that funny.
But it’s a strong cast from top to bottom. Among the supporting ensemble, Page Kennedy makes an especially strong impression as Duck, an intimidatingly muscular old partner in crime and a new employee who found Jesus in prison. And then there is Fields, who in the distant past was Tootie on “Facts of Life” and in the less distant past Regine on “Living Single,” and whose many other appearances includes the eighth season of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” The dramatic lines of the series (it does have them) are best seen through Regina’s eyes: She is its most serious, deepest-feeling, least-caricatured character, which is not to say she isn’t also funny. It’s a performance that never calls attention to itself, but if you care to notice, is terrifically exciting.
There is something about multicamera sitcoms, which put large ensembles in a room together — sometimes a whole cast at once, with an audience theoretically in attendance — that is well-suited to these stories of extended families, returning episode after episode. Whether with people who drive us crazy or make us happy, who are often the same people, it says: We are together, and in this together.
When: Any time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
‘Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!’
When: Any Time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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