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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Playing Race For Laughs
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
September 19, 2003
With colloquial racism deemed no longer noxious but rebellious and plain fun especially by comedy writers eager to forsake stale Seinfeldisms and show off their harsher material two sitcoms have cartwheeled into prime time to have a ball with race.
WB calls its effortful "Like Family," which makes its debut tonight, a crossover comedy, suggesting there is a Jim Crow line running through television audiences that the network bravely plans to breach. In a different spirit, Fox's "Luis" offers viewers a chance to take renewed delight in old contentions: that the Irish are feisty, the Jews like salmon and the Chinese are smart.
"Like Family" passes time in a New Jersey bathroom, a windowless mauve affair the size of an urban kitchen, with two slammable doors that ensure heavy traffic. Enter a chipper white lady, primping; a tenderhearted black boy, cavorting; a white underachiever, complaining; a fat black man, ambling. This last guy has a newspaper. It seems he plans to stay, and that's one big gag.
As the underachiever, Keith (J. Mack Slaughter), puts it on the second episode, "Good morning, my multigenerational, multiethnic family."
This madcap race-mixing happens because Tanya (Holly Robinson Peete), who is black, has unaccountably agreed to put up her best girlfriend, Maddie (Diane Farr), and her son, Keith. The chipper Maddie is an implausibly juvenile single mother, in the "Gilmore Girls" tradition, while Tanya is tough and hot, the kind of woman about whom other women might say, "I don't know how she does it."
What Tanya does, as it surfaces, is set up jokes for her husband, Ed (Kevin Michael Richardson), the man with the newspaper; Bobby (B. J. Mitchell), her sweet son; and Pop (J. Anthony Brown), Ed's father. As an old black man on a sitcom, Pop can naturally be identified by his fedora, pocket square and cigar.
In the show's first episode, Ed doesn't want to take in Maddie and Keith, but Tanya begs.
"The boy needs a strong male influence," she says.
"Tell him to watch Dr. Phil," Ed replies, and it's clear that Maddie and Keith will be sent out, only to return to this house and its bathroom, where they'll become like family.
Good thing, because the show depends on Keith, catnip for the Teen People set: he's a looker with a gunky thatch of hair. Seemingly on loan from an all-white show, Keith is here to be hazed. Tanya's daughter, Danika (Megalyn Echikunwoke), nicknames him Poopy. Ed has him test-drive a toilet seat. Little Bobby, who bunks above him, seems poised to soak him in urine. That's what he gets for crossing over.
A similar white slacker is made a fool of on "Luis," Fox's shrewdly packaged show for Luis Guzman, which also has its premiere tonight.
Mr. Guzman, the short character actor whose eyes are connected by a deep crease across the top of his nose, plays Luis, a Puerto Rican who owns a building and a doughnut shop in Spanish Harlem. He also has a daughter named Marly (Jaclyn DeSantis), a bourgeois exemplar: "My little capitalista, wearing a name tag from a real, live bank." Marly, for her part, has picked up Greg (Wes Ramsey), a lanky blond who looks as if he might have played lacrosse at Exeter. Greg, who is nominally a painter, is out of money.
"We love each other," Marly says. "It doesn't matter who pays the bills."
Her father takes a different view. "He got to you," Luis says. "That's the tongue of the sponge talking."
Greg is not the only con artist on "Luis." There is also Richie (Charlie Day), a wheezy half-wit who works the doughnut counter and leers at Marly; his spastic delivery, which suggests Bobcat Goldthwait, is inventive. A raggedy thief (Malcolm Barrett) who sells his haul in the doughnut shop is funnier still. Advertising his goods ("A waffle iron and a `White Oleander' DVD Renée Zellweger is a damn triumph"), he might just steal this show.
Mr. Day and Mr. Barrett stand out because they're not obliged just to tell the corny jokes about race that are meant to prove that "Luis" minces no words. Elsewhere on the show, the rote delivery of blacks-and-Jews jokes is enough to make one miss even the most supercilious days of political correctness.
"I'd have a nicer building if you would have given birth to a shortstop, like a Dominican woman's supposed to," Luis tells his ex-wife, Isabella (Diana-Maria Riva).
"Oh, please," she responds. "He'd be half Puerto Rican. He'd be too lazy to practice."
Exchanges like this one may induce in some viewers nostalgia for the street-bigot gaspers of, say, Don Rickles. (Those were the days.) But nostalgia is no substitute for comedy.
In fact, whether racism is a fact of life or the ne plus ultra of social transgression, how did television writers forget how little comic potential it offered in the first place?
WB, Fridays at 8:30, Eastern and Pacific Times; 7:30, Central Time.
Created and written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Barnet Kellman; Mr. Fogelman, Rick Wiener, Kenny Schwartz and Warren Littlefield, executive producers; Ernest Johnson, producer.
WITH: Holly Robinson Peete (Tanya Ward), Diane Farr (Maddie Hudson), Kevin Michael Richardson (Ed Ward), Megalyn Echikunwoke (Danika Ward), J. Mack Slaughter (Keith Hudson), B. J. Mitchell (Bobby), and J. Anthony Brown (Pop).
Fox, Fridays at 8:30, Eastern and Pacific Times; 7:30, Central Time.
Created by Will Gluck; directed by Jeff Melman; Mr. Gluck, executive prooducer; Tom Saunders, co-executive producer; John Amodeo and Michael Bregman, producers; Julius Metoyer, director of photography. Produced by 20th Century Fox Television.
WITH: Luis Guzman (Luis), Jaclyn DeSantis (Marly), Diana-Maria Riva (Isabella), Charlie Day (Richie) Malcolm Barrett (TK) and Wes Ramsey (Greg).