overthinking the idiot box

February 27, 2006

Learning to Love Hate

A sitcom finds its voice through heaping on the misery.
by Mark T.R. Donohue

For its first several episodes, I found watching Everybody Hates Chris more of an obligation than a pleasure. Single-camera sitcoms are to be encouraged, particularly ones on fledgling networks, and the source material for Chris — Chris Rock's angry, emotional standup specials — deserves much memorization and discussion. But in its infancy, the show found itself straitjacketed by its format, mining Rock's comedy act for material as if reciting it with hands folded behind its back. Too many of the characters seemed to settle into easy genre archetypes, and the scripts by Rock collaborator Ali LeRoi were quick to borrow memorable lines from Bigger and Blacker (like the proverbial "big piece of chicken") without carrying with them any of the attendant survivor's pride that made Chris Rock's standup so poignant.

After a pretty successful launch — it beat Joey its first time out — Chris has struggled to keep its audience. For fans of Rock, and high-minded TV fans in general, the show in its early outings didn't do quite enough to set it apart from your standard nuclear family sitcom. As the season has rolled on, the comedy has hit upon more and more of an original voice, although it remains to be seen if the ratings numbers will ever be as good again.

Even with reduced numbers Everybody Hates Chris is still what passes for a hit on the soon-to-be defunct UPN network, so the show has had some time to grow into itself. It's true that mother Rochelle (Tichina Arnold) and little siblings Tanya and Drew (Imani Hakim and Tequan Richmond) have yet to really sprout dimension beyond their obvious Cosbyverse precursors. But as LeRoi and his staff have gone along, they've developed a storytelling voice that transcends the show's perhaps-too-specific milieu and recalls some of the most fondly-remembered television depictions of childhood ever aired — the classic early Charlie Brown holiday specials.

Their references to the touchstone moments of the timeless specials... are all meant to momentarily evoke through allusion a feeling that none of the newer shows generate internally.
As Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson noted in one of his introductions, what made the early Peanuts strips classic was their realization that growing up is essentially a tragedy. Charlie Brown never gets to kick Lucy's football, Linus never gets to see the Great Pumpkin, and the kids' baseball team never wins a game. (And Marcy never gets to realize her great unrequited passion for Peppermint Patty, but that's another essay.) Family Guy, Arrested Development, The Boondocks," and The Simpsons have all paid homage to A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in their own ways, but those shows, like most quality half-hour comedy these days, are all satires. Their references to the touchstone moments of the timeless specials — "I got a rock," the peculiar spastic manner in which Snoopy and the Peanuts gang dance, Vince Guaraldi's epochal jazz piano poking — are all meant to momentarily evoke through allusion a feeling that none of the newer shows generate internally.

Everybody Hates Chris ,when it's working, generates all-new childhood misery. Tyler James Williams is relentlessly appealing as the title character, but the show steadfastly refuses to make life in any way easy for Chris. Standard plots involve the hero's bike being stolen, his class-photo day outfit going missing, his crush abandoning him for his younger brother, and his crashing and burning with the school basketball team. In one of the best episodes to date, "Everybody Hates a Part-Time Job," Chris both learns the agonizing value of a dollar and the humanity of his own father.

In former NFL linebacker Terry Crews, who plays Julius, the show has a genuinely original African-American father figure, an anti-Cliff Huxtable who is physically imposing but emotionally accessible. Julius exists in a minefield of potential disasters — shady appliance dealers with "easy credit," a neighborhood full of aggressively available single women, two back-breaking jobs with superiors who don't treat him with respect. Crews' accomplishment is that he plays Julius as neither self-pitying nor stoic. His life is hard, but his family is worth it. Rock's admiration for his own late father is obvious from how well-drawn Julius is in contrast to the narrator's other family members. Unlike the sitcom-standby character traits given Rochelle and Tanya, Julius's signature bit — an uncanny ability to divine the exact cost of any amount of any given consumer product — is at once comic and resonant. It's hard not to develop affection for a character to whom happiness is just an extra hour's worth of sleep.

Obviously the show is at its best when it plays its two strongest characters off of each other, as in "Everybody Hates Christmas" (well, what do you know — a holiday episode). In this show a broken hot water heater has left Julius and Rochelle without enough cash to buy all the kids presents. Chris, who deeply desires a new Walkman, is left to learn in short order that there's no Santa and that this year, for him there's no Christmas. LeRoi and episode co-writer Alyson Fouse steadfastly refuse to resort to a deus ex machina. No mysterious benefactor emerges at the last minute, and Chris has to go without his Walkman. Even in this day and age, that's a pretty gutsy stance for a family sitcom to take.

The show still has a way to go. Chris seems to have painted itself into a bit of a corner with its early-1980's setting; the writers seem to feel it necessary to insert a "period" element into every plot like That 70's Show in its first season. The show seems a little overly cautious when it comes to race issues, particularly in the relationship between Chris and his white best friend Greg (Vincent Martella), who ironically seems more at home with black culture than Chris is. Too often the Chris writers pick a gag so obvious that it can't possibly come across as offensive: the rich, older black man who rents the room upstairs turns out to be a wanted criminal, or Chris ends up posing for his school picture in a lawn jockey's outfit. It'd be nice to see more scenes like the one at the close of "Everybody Hates Greg," where the initially distrustful Julius and Greg's dad bond over a beer. Another area that needs improvement is the writing for the brother and sister characters. Tanya to this point is just a stock whiny little sister, and while Richmond is well-cast as the kid to whom everything comes easy in opposition to Chris, he could use some more to do.

The title itself is one of the show's weakest links, inadvertently recalling a Simpsons joke about the creative bankruptcy of modern network programming.
It's certainly too late to change it, but the title itself is one of the show's weakest links, inadvertently recalling a Simpsons joke about the creative bankruptcy of modern network programming. Everybody Hates Chris is better-written and better-acted than most current sitcom fare, and I imagine that next year as one of the flagship programs of the new CW network, a larger audience will arrive just as the show is emerging into maturity. Just running out of Rock standup material to regurgitate will do Chris wonders.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 11.