CBS laugh-track sitcoms are the last place I’d expect to find amusement, but I was pleasantly surprised with their new Monday night offering, Happy Together, with Damon Wayons Jr. and Amber Stevens West, while The Neighborhood with Cedric the Entertainer and Max Greenfield has a modicum of potential that the series seems woefully incapable of capitalizing upon.
Happy Together (not to be confused with Wayans’ Happy Endings) is easily the better of the two, a double fish-out-of-water premise inspired by the life of Harry Styles (an exec producer), who moved into the attic of producer Ben Winston’s home for 18 months to get away from the limelight during the heyday of One Direction. The sitcom itself can best be described as zany, as creators Austen Earl and Tim McAuliffe take a sort of farcical approach to the premise and lean into it. Wayans Jr. and Stevens West play Jake and Claire, an “ordinary” married couple whose lives are upended when a hugely famous pop star, Cooper James (Felix Mallard), decides to move in with them (Jake is his accountant).
The premise cuts both ways, comedically speaking: Jake and Claire not only get to experience brief glimpses of fame, but they’re also able to introduce “ordinary” things to Cooper, who seems mystified by things like processed food and chain restaurants in malls. I know how idiotic that sounds, but Wayans Jr. and Stevens West have impeccable chemistry together, and in its own way, the sitcom is something of a statement on marriage, about how to find ways to keep it interesting while also learning how to navigate the waves together. But mostly, it’s just insanely likable, the premise provides a lot of room for comedy, and the jokes are surprisingly pretty good. I’m already in love with Jake and Claire.
The Neighborhood, on the other hand, is playing with fire and holding a milk gallon jug of gasoline between its legs. In it, Max Greenfield (Schmidt from New Girl) and Beth Behrs (2 Broke Girls) play a white couple, Dave and Gemma, who move into an all-black neighborhood next door to The Butlers. Cedric the Entertainer plays Calvin Butler, a crank who is suspicious of white people, a suspicion that is amplified by the fact that Dave is way too nice for his own good.
Mostly, The Neighborhood trades in on stereotypes about black people and white people, and much of it is painful to watch (with the occasional joke that lands) as Dave and Gemma end up trying too hard not to come off as racist, while Calvin does his version of a black Archie Bunker with mixed success. The sitcom only seems to work when it highlights Calvin’s sons (Sheaun McKinney and Marcel Spears), one of whom provides a running commentary on the awkwardness of the situation, and the other of whom seems genuinely interested in engaging in the conversation that the sitcom ostensibly wants to have. Unfortunately, from what I have seen in the pilot episode, anyway, The Neighborhood is not equipped to have that conversation.
Comedy pilots, however, are notoriously messy, and this one may eventually find its groove. I am skeptical, however, about its ability to truly engage in meaningful social commentary about race when it has to play to a laugh track. Right now, it’s not much better than Last Man Standing, only instead of stereotypes about liberals and Republicans, it offers stereotypes about black and white people, and my concern is that The Neighborhood may reinforce those stereotypes with its big, broad CBS audience rather than erase them.
Header Image Source: CBS