TV review: Charming 'The Soul Man' knows to not try too hard

Like "Hot in Cleveland,"the show from whence it sprung, TV Land's new comedy "The Soul Man" is positioning itself to be retro-cool — a backlash against the high-concept, sardonic and/or emotionally strung-out comedies that have become so ubiquitous that "Nurse Jackie" is considered, technically, funny.

Instead of three middle-aged women finding peace and occasionally wisdom once they abandon L.A. for Cleveland, "The Soul Man" sends former R&B star Boyce "The Voice"Ballentine (Cedric the Entertainer) back to his roots in St. Louis where he trades music videos for a pulpit and takes over as the reverend of his father's church.

Also making the transition from celebrity to a life of service are his wife, Lolli (Niecy Nash), and teen daughter, Lyric (Jazz Raycole).

Without the benefit of their own personal epiphanies, Lolli and Lyric are having a tougher time adjusting to life as the preacher's family, though it's not all that easy for Boyce either. Though retired, Boyce's father Barton (John Beasley) still wants to run things, and not everyone's buying the newly sanctified Boyce, especially younger brother Stamps (Wesley Jonathan), who is, rather predictably, a smart-mouthed slacker.

Indeed there are many things that are predictable about "The Soul Man." Created by Cedric and "Hot in Cleveland's" Suzanne Martin, it serves up Lolli's feistiness, Lyric's sassiness, nosy church ladies with big hats and hair issues, and early story arcs that too patly run conflict, crisis, reconciliation, wisdom gained. (It is also filmed in front of an audience, which means a lot of irritating laughter.)

But it is a funny and charming show nonetheless — and not just because Boyce is a big and obvious fan of my alma mater, the University of Missouri Columbia (go Tigers!). Cedric is a charismatic yet soothing presence, quite believable in this role.

Boyce and Lolli appear to have a marriage that is recognizable as an actual marriage rather than an expository excuse for jokes about sex, nagging and how-can-you-not-know-where-the-oil-gauge-is. As the resident geriatric know-it-all, Beasley has the toughest job, but he's a pro and gives Barton just enough pride and humility to keep things fluid.

It's also nice to see a show that revolves around a house of worship, albeit nondenominational and following a catechism that appears to be based more on uplifting music than actual scripture. In the first two episodes, Boyce must help parishioners handle death and alcoholism and in each case, the writing wobbles a bit between humor and disrespect.

Though it never quite hits its stride, the show never pitches us into the abyss. "The Soul Man" is about a star trying to become a vessel, which is in direct opposition to most comedies. If anything close to that actually plays out here, it might just start a revolution.

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