Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Most Underrated Black Sitcoms

The Cosby Show was the best and worst thing to happen to black sitcoms. It was the best because it helped to bring about a resurgence of black sitcoms, many of which had positive images. However, it was also the worst because it created unrealistic expectations for other black shows to follow. No black sitcom since The Cosby Show has had nearly the same sort of impact on television audiences. Even though there have been some hits post-Cosby (The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, for example), many more black sitcoms have flown under the radar. Some of these shows lasted only one or two seasons while others managed to last long enough to go into syndication. What all of these shows have in common is that they never received the ratings and/or the praise they should have when they were on the air. While not all of them were “classics,” they did deserve to be seen and enjoyed by more people.

Here are my picks for the most underrated black sitcoms post-The Cosby Show in no particular order:

Sparks (UPN): This show revolved around the family-run law firm of Sparks, Sparks, and Sparks. Alonzo Sparks (James Avery) is the head of the firm and patriarch of the family practices law with his two sons. Maxey (Miguel A. Nunez, Jr.) is flashy, sneaky, and a little crude. Maxey's brother Greg (Terrence Howard) is his complete opposite, a hard-working, honest man. Their world is shaken up by the arrival of lawyer Wilma Cuthbert (Robin Givens). The brothers' sibling rivalry, competing affections for Wilma, and the love/hate relationship with their father complicate the running of their law firm. With a great cast that worked well together, solid writing, and a theme song by the late, great Billy Preston, it's a shame that it only lasted two seasons on UPN. It was the one of the first major roles for Terrence Howard, who would later find his mainstream breakout role in the movie Hustle & Flow.

Roc (FOX): The closest any show came to capturing the spirit of black theater on television was Roc. With a cast of stage veterans, Roc dealt with the everyday life of working class African-Americans with a class that is rarely seen. Roc Emerson (Charles S. Dutton) is a city garbage collector who lives with his wife Eleanor (Ella Joyce) and his father Andrew (Carl Gordon). His somewhat irresponsible younger brother Joey (Rocky Carroll) also added to the festivities. While the plot may sound somewhat bland, the execution most certainly wasn't. Critically praised when it was on the air, it never got good ratings. In an attempt to increase its ratings, every episode of its final season was done live. As far as I know, no sitcom since has ever attempted something like that. It showed off the cast's theater training and highlighted the show's playlike feel. It only lasted three seasons on FOX but it left a mark as one of the most truly unique black sitcoms to ever air on television. Reruns of this show can be seen on the cable channel TV One.

Good News (UPN): Even though it takes place in the black church, was produced by the same people behind Amen, and even shared a cast member with that show, Good News couldn't be more different from that Sherman Helmsley vehicle. The show starred David Ramsey as Pastor Randolph, the new, young pastor at a Baptist church. His arrival doesn't sit too well with the old guard of the church including Mrs. Dixon (Amen's Roz Ryan), the church's unofficial big dog. The two of them clash as Pastor Randolph struggles to modernize the church and increase its congregation and Mrs. Dixon tries to keep things the way they are. The two learn to compromise as the pastor tries to do what is right. While this show wasn't as good as Amen, it had a good message and certainly presented the black church in a positive light. This show lasted just one season on UPN. Good News (along with Sparks) aired in reruns for a while on BET.

The Bernie Mac Show (FOX): FOX is notorious for greenlighting many interesting and creative shows that, through the action or inaction of the network, end up biting the dust. The list of great but canceled FOX shows is longer than most networks list of great shows in general. While The Bernie Mac Show stayed on long enough to make into syndication, it's an example of a show that could have (and should have) been more popular than it was. The show had Bernie Mac playing himself, a comedian and actor originally from Chicago. When his sister gets into trouble with the law (and drugs), Bernie and his wife Wanda (Kellita Smith) agree to take in his sister's three kids. Vanessa (Camille Winbush), the oldest of three, frequently clashed with her Uncle Bernie. Jordan (Jeremy Suarez), the middle child, is a nerd with a mischievous streak. Bryana (Dee Dee Davis), aka “Baby Girl,” is clearly Bernie's favorite and she gets away with more than any of the other kids. The show, shot single-camera style with no studio audience, had Bernie directly talking to the audience as he and Wanda learn to deal with suddenly becoming parents. It was the talk of TV when it first started but the talk faded after a couple of seasons. Audiences had trouble finding the show due to frequent moves around the schedule and it was canceled earlier this year with a whimper. During its time on the air, it stayed consistently good...even after the forced departure of creator Larry Wilmore. It's unfortunate that a show that should've been one of FOX's comedy flagships instead became one that less and less people were able to find. This show is worth catching in syndication wherever you can find it.

Half & Half (UPN): In the final season of UPN, this show reigned as the network's best comedy behind a certain Chris Rock show. Rachel True and Essence Atkins starred as half-sisters Mona and Dee Dee Thorne. These two sisters have completely opposite personalities. Mona, who works at a record company with her childhood friend Spencer (Chico Benymon), is free-spirited and laidback. Dee Dee, a law student who later becomes a sports agent, is reserved and a little more uptight. The girls share a father in Charles Thorne (Obba Babatunde) who is married to former actress “Big” Dee Dee (Valarie Pettiford), Dee Dee's mother. Charles's ex-wife is Phyllis (Telma Hopkins), a therapist who is the mother of Mona. Big Dee Dee and Phyllis can't stand each other and battle all the time. Mona and Dee Dee each deal with life and love as they try to better their sisterly relationship. The show's biggest strength is in its ensemble cast. As each of the actors became more comfortable with their characters, the chemistry between them got better. In its final days, it was still on the way up with an expanded role for supporting character Adam (Alec Mapa), one of the few gay Asian characters to appear on TV.

Living Single (FOX): Living Single starred Queen Latifah as Khadijah, the founder and publisher of an entertainment magazine. She lives with her goofy cousin Synclaire (Kim Coles) and their somewhat shallow childhood friend Regine (Kim Fields). Khadijah's college friend, lawyer Max (Erika Alexander), is always around as are neighbors Kyle (T.C. Carson) and Overton (John Henton). This show presented a portrait of four professional women dealing with life and love before Sex and The City and Girlfriends and even predates Friends in its portrayal of a mixed gender group of friends. It helped Queen Latifah hone her acting skills before she became the Academy Award nominee she is today. It was smart, funny, and never talked down to its audience during its five seasons on the air. You can catch reruns of this show daily on the cable channel Oxygen and in syndication.

A Different World (NBC): Many black sitcoms are spinoffs of white shows. Benson was a spinoff of Soap. The Jeffersons was a spinoff of All In The Family. Good Times was a spinoff of Maude. A Different World, on the other hand, was a spinoff of The Cosby Show, one of the most successful black sitcoms of all time. Featuring a memorable theme song sung by Aretha Franklin for much of its run, the show was initially a vehicle for The Cosby Show's Lisa Bonet. However, Bonet left after the first season and it became more of an ensemble show. It took place at the historically black (and fictional) Hillman College and revolved around a group of students trying to make it through the college experience. They included Jaleesa (Dawnn Lewis), Whitley (Jasmine Guy), Kim (Charnele Brown), Freddie (Cree Summer), Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) and his friend Ron (Darryl M. Bell). It was the first (and may end up being the only) show to take place at a historically black college and portray a part of black life that is rarely seen in entertainment. Although it lasted for six seasons, I don't think it gets the love that it should. It's arguably the best show Bill Cosby produced that he didn't star in.

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