Showtime’s ongoing commitment to the challenging lives of stand-up comics continues with the comedy White Famous joining an active slate that includes I’m Dying Up Here and Dice.
Consistently watchable due to a versatile and charismatic lead performance by Jay Pharoah, White Famous still feels like an impersonal relic of television past — and not distant past, but maybe three or four years ago before artisanal shows like Atlanta, Master of None and Better Things redefined the fatigued making-it-in-entertainment genre. In those shows, creator-director-stars have found a way to funnel familiar stories through a uniquely personal perspective, while between co-creator Tom Kapinos (Californication), big-name producer Jaime Foxx and recurring director Tim Story (Ride Along), White Famous feels packaged rather than fresh.
Pharoah plays Floyd, a reasonably successful stand-up comic who seems content with a level of fame one character encapsulates as “East of the 10, South of Crenshaw.” The alternative to this “black obscurity” is “white famous,” a condition Floyd’s agent Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar, in a different show, but possibly a funnier show) explains as the ability to transcend color, to become a brand name like Eddie Murphy or Will Smith or Jamie Foxx. In order to reach this level, though, compromises need to be made and Floyd is a man who is opposed to compromises — which, in the pilot, are embodied by an offer to play a woman in a potentially big movie, something he promised his own father he’d never do. The show accepts that this is a trope relating to emasculating black men, without having enough teeth to call out a Martin Lawrence or Tyler Perry.
Floyd’s trying to be a good and present father to son Trevor (Lonnie Chavis), who lives with Floyd’s ex-with-benefits Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman), whom Floyd clearly still loves (not that their separation stops him from one-night stands or getting irrationally worked up when she goes out on dates).
In addition to Malcolm, Floyd is generally accompanied by his roommate and professional advisor Ron Balls (Jacob Ming-Trent), a font of wisdom and mooching.
Narratively, this is sitcomy stuff so conventional that it’s almost literally the plot of NBC’s Marlon, a show nobody accused of being innovative.
Pharoah knows the compromises necessary to find fame, having been consistently underutilized for six seasons on Saturday Night Live, where he was treated as an impression machine and not a source of original characters. Even here, when he’s given a fully inhabitable character, Pharoah still finds himself doing an extended Denzel Washington impression and nods to Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby in the first episode alone. There are shades of a young Murphy in Pharoah’s energy and his comfort playing romantic lead — Coleman is so good with so little to do that I yearn for her to have a real part — but the character rarely goes deeper than that.
Master of None, Better Things and Atlanta are only variably autobiographical for Aziz Ansari, Pamela Adlon and Donald Glover, but they’re all specific and layered shows built around the smallest of details in the lives of the main characters. White Famous only sometimes feels like Floyd’s story at all, which I think one would recognize even without knowing that the first two episodes were written by a 40-something white guy. Floyd’s struggles to retain his unique voice in a Hollywood that isn’t equipped to nurture him feel like they’re taking place in a dated landscape of media options and rely very heavily on stereotypical situations, like when he’s mistaken for the valet leaving a restaurant. Even in that scene, the confusion becomes more about the discomfort Floyd causes for a white producer (the excellent Stephen Tobolowsky) than what it means or says about Floyd; ditto interactions with different white directors (Steve Zissis in the pilot, then Michael Rapaport), who aren’t exactly racist, but stumble into saying racist things around him.
Floyd also gets upstaged in the pilot by Foxx, playing himself in a cameo lifted from the raunch-for-raunch’s sake Californication playbook. Like the rest of a show that was initially reported to be based on instances from Foxx’s life, the role reveals so little about the Oscar winner’s own Hollywood journey that he could almost be playing anybody.
It’s not like Showtime doesn’t know the way the creative tide is shifting. SMILF is being sold as the singular vision of Frankie Shaw and will be paired with White Famous a couple weeks into its run in what may be an unflattering juxtaposition. White Famous establishes Pharoah’s position as a comic performer to watch, but what it lacks is a definitive comic voice behind him.
Cast: Jay Pharoah, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Jacob Ming-Trent, Lonnie Chavis, Cleopatra Coleman
Creators: Tom Kapinos, Chris Spencer and Buddy Lewis
Showrunner: Tom Kapinos
Premieres Sunday, Oct. 15, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime; moves to 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 5.