Tuesday, September 27, 2005

TV: Everybody Hates Chris

Everybody Hates Chris is a good example of critical oversell. This is the show, along with My Name Is Earl, that was touted pre-season as the rejuvenation of the sitcom genre. This is the show that would take UPN one step closer to being a legitimate network with must-see shows. As it turns out, I thought Earl was almost as good as the critics said. But Chris, while very good, and certainly a quantum leap forward for sitcoms on UPN, didn't quite meet expectations.

First of all, let me get this out of the way: that title is dumb. A play on another sitcom's title is bad enough when that show just ended its run last season; in five years time (should Chris be so lucky), the choice of title will haunt them. "Why oh why didn't we come up with an original, worthwhile name??" Ah, maybe it's just me.

Anyway, the actual show is smart, sweet, well written, well shot (without that cheap UPN look to it), and well acted. It feels original while still evoking a number of classic comedies, from Good Times to The Wonder Years to Malcolm in the Middle. Objectively, it's a great success. My only problem with it is that it didn't really make me laugh very much. In fact, I got more laughs from Love, Inc. than Chris.

That's not to say it's not funny. It's just not as funny as I wanted it to be, which is perhaps an unfair standard. Oh well.

The show's star, Tyler James Williams, playing a young Chris Rock, has been spotlighted as one of the breakout performers of the new season. He's very good for a child actor, but he's not quite where he needs to be yet. He's strong in spots, especially when his character is being strong; he's weakest, oddly enough, when his character is at his weakest -- fearful or insecure. He relies a little too much on big, bug-eyed reactions that feel forced -- in that way, he reminds me of the kid who plays Ron in the Harry Potter movies. I think Williams has plenty of potential, but as of the pilot episode, he's still a little shaky.

Chris' parents, who have moved the family from the projects to the supposedly higher class Bed-Stuy neighborhood (which is just about to be hit with the crack epidemic), are played by Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold, and they're a wonderful TV couple. Crews, as father Julius, starts out as seemingly cruel and petty (counting the exact cost, down to the penny, of every single bit of wasted food -- which is funny the first time, but feels way overused by the end of the episode), and Arnold as mother Rochelle seems uncaring and shrewish. When the two of them clash over how bills should be paid, I thought the show was planning on making them an unlikeable pair, just two more people to hate Chris. But by show's end, they've revealed themselves to be deeply caring and loving. Sure, the kids live in fear of waking dad from his daytime sleep -- but it's only because dad has to work two graveyard shift jobs. When Chris comes in to wake his dad, it's a very sweet and revealing moment. "It's 5:00," Chris says. "It's not 4:59?" his father asks in a warning tone. Then he asks, wearily, "Which job am I going to?" and you can't help but feel for the man. The parents' reconciliation over the bills-paying argument is just as touching, with Rochelle explaining that certain bills have to be unpaid if they want to keep any money for themselves, and Julius' heart filling with love for the strong woman who takes care of him.

Very sweet, but, as I said, not necessarily very funny.

When his parents arrange to have Chris bused to a nicer, all-white school than the local one (from which he can hear shots ring out as the bus passes by), I began to wonder if I was feeling a bit of a disconnect from the material. There are still plenty of funny and relatable moments, as Chris finds himself the target of bullying by some of his new schoolmates. The scene in which "Ebony and Ivory" blares while Chris gets his ass beaten by the bully is a hysterically wonderful use of music. But there are certain things that I didn't buy, that rang false to me, which may only be due to my particular perspective. For example, during the fight with the bully, a white cop walks by, and not only decides not to stop the fight, but even seems to approve of the white kid beating the black kid -- that seemed absurd to me, like the show was stacking the deck with a truly unrealistic moment. But maybe that's simply naivete on my part; for all I know, that could be an actual detail from Chris Rock's childhood. Same thing with the bus driver who tries to ditch Chris as he's running from the bullies, even going so far as to shut the door on his hand and start driving. Would any bus driver really do that to a kid? No, seriously, I'm asking: would they? It seems far too over-the-top hateful and phony to be funny, but maybe I'm simply out of my element.

I had a bit of a problem with the flow of the show as well. We keep cutting away from Chris to spend brief moments with the parents that aren't especially interesting, funny, or necessary. Maybe the actors just wanted more screentime. But it makes the main story feel disjointed at times.

It's a small complaint. I think most of my problems with the show are small, save for the disconnect to the material I mentioned. Maybe I'm analyzing certain racially charged moments a little too much; maybe I need to ignore them and just laugh. But it's hard to ignore the racial implications when so much of the show's humor is directly dependent on them, when so much of the writing seems to say, "Aren't white people just awful?"

Am I being unfair? Are they? I see enough quality in the show, and I got enough unqualified laughter from it, that I'll keep tuning in -- because it's a good show, sure, but also because I'm curious to find out if either question has some truth to it. Or neither.

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