Sunday, December 04, 2005

TV Review: Everybody Should Love Chris

Thursday nights, on UPN, Everybody Hates Chris. We didn't. Maybe we just don't like orders masking as show titles but, while we never loved Raymond, we really do enjoy Chris.

In fact the shows are bookends in many ways. Everything that was wrong with Everybody Loves Raymond is right with Everyone Hates Chris. Both shows revolved around little boys, but Chris, played by Tyler James Williams, actually is a boy; Ray Romano just played a stunted adult.

There are other differences as well. Thirteen-year-old Chris is attempting to navigate his way in the world as he approaches adulthood. Ray Romano held on to the apron strings like they were a lifeline.

Here's another difference, no one mugs to the camera and tries to milk a laugh (repeatedly) with long pauses. Watching Everyone Hates Chris, you can actually believe you're watching characters instead of actors on a soundstage.

Best of all, instead of Patricia Heaton, her laughable hair "colors" and her delivery that seemed stuck on nag, you get Tichina Arnold as Chris' mother Rochelle. Anyone who ever watched Martin can tell you that Arnold's Pam could give it as good as she got. And that, unlike Heaton, she could do that with snappy delivery and a voice that didn't have you running for the ear plugs.

Rochelle works part-time which is another huge difference. Everybody Hates Chris is set in 1982. Everybody Loves Raymond was set in the present day (though the retro feel may have fooled some). So why is it that wives didn't work on Raymond? Why is it that they had to trot out their own version of thirty-something's worst episode (when Hope returns to work and realizes she belongs at home)? Considering that Somebody Must Love Raymond never tired of the "I make the money! It's mine!" "jokes," you have to be a real doormat (or Patricia Heaton) to put up with that crap.

Tichina Arnold is no one's doormat. And she's already established onscreen chemistry with Terry Crews who plays Rochelle's husband Julius. Along with Chris, the parents have two other children. Imani Hakim plays Chris' sister Tonya and Tequan Richmond plays Chris' brother Drew. Even the children are clearly defined at this point. No easy feat.

The show revolves around Tyler James Williams' Chris and Williams hasn't developed an I'm-so-adorable quality that wipes out so many juvenile leads. (We're keeping our fingers crossed that this continues.) In last week's episode, Chris went from school outcast to desired due to the fact that a (White) coach wrongly assumed he could play basketball. Why did the coach assume that?

Why is the show on UPN?

The cast is African-American and you don't see casts like that on the big three very often in the last few years. Even less so when a show actually addresses racial issues instead of pretending that the family is just the Ward Cleavers with a really deep tan.

Chris Rock provides voice overs throughout the show. We're not fond of narrators. But if you're going to have one, better to go with Rock who's not going to go warm and fuzzy. (Best line delivered by Rock thus far: "Like wars, most fights are started by people who won't get hit.") Rock came up with the idea for this show and is also the executive producer so hopefully the show will continue to reflect his point of view.

You can see it in the boarder Julius rents a room to. Rochelle's suspicious of him. Standard sitcom fare of long ago is that the boarder turns out to be a really good guy. Newer version was that the boarder is crazy and you get him out via some wacky plot. (Think of how Chandler & Joey ousted Eddie on season two of Friends.) That was the newer version.

On Everybody Hates Chris, the boarder is a wanted criminal and a swat team storms the house.
Outside of a gag at the end of Roseanne, we're not recalling seeing anything like that before.

It's a funny movie and it is surprising only because so many shows play it so safe with dated lines and dated subplots. ("Marie! I can too cook!") The subversive moments, when the show veers left instead of driving straight down the center, are what stand out when you watch.

Chris is a real jerk to the few friends he had before he got popular. There's no attempt to pretty that up. Then there's the pop quiz. Chris fails it. When he then joins the basketball team, the teacher lets him retake the test. Chris gets every answer wrong but the teacher gives him a passing grade. When Chris is off the team, the teacher restores the failing grade. It feels real and probably more so because you don't see that too often.

Chris is a horrible basketball player in his one game. As he takes the court, he's full of hope that despite not being good at the game, he'll somehow manage to pull off the impossible. This being a sitcom, it would be in keeping with the genre for him to do just that.

But the show refuses to deliver the obvious and Chris remains awful at basketball. We laughed a lot while watching the show but when we discussed it after what stood out were those moments.

Everybody Hates Chris isn't playing it safe. It's not content to wrap a hoary, old story in some semi-naughty jokes and call it "fresh." The reason to watch this show (and you should) is not because it will make you laugh (though it will, and often) but because it's not talking down the audience. While Everybody Thinks Someone Loves Raymond was content with turning racism into a joke (Frank & Marie's reaction to Robert possibly dating his police partner that's then swept under the rug) and letting everyone off with a pass, Everybody Hates Chris is not going to play that game.

Chris Rock shot to fame not on the wings of jokes about nagging wives. His intellect and ability to blend various topics into a seamless narrative is why he stood out. That same vision (and intelligence) can be seen in Everybody Hates Chris.

This is a show that friends suggested we review early on. We resisted because we don't like to comment on child actors. Though they're often the bread winners in their family, they're still children. We weren't sure we could convey why you should or shouldn't watch the show, so we avoided it until a friend passed on some episodes.

We think you'll enjoy the performances from everyone on the show (Arnold is a standout but we loved her as Pam as well). But what you'll probably respond to even more is seeing a show that's not out to tell the same joke in the same way for the 99th million time. TV is a wasteland for the most part these days. (Dana wondered if we ever caught Medium since we praised it? We record it every week but rarely have the time to watch it. The two episodes we did see this year were of high quality -- and yes, that did include the 3D episode and we did don the glasses.)
So when a show comes along that's willing to treat the audience as adults and assume you can handle something more than usual twists and turns (and tacked on happy ending), it's worth noting. When that show is also as hilarious as Everybody Hates Chris, it's a show you should be watching.
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