'Marlon': TV Review

Marlon is great, but 'Marlon' is too much Marlon.

Marlon Wayans' NBC comedy shows how versatile a performer Wayans can be, but it's a family sitcom in which the family is an afterthought.

In Marlon Wayans' new NBC comedy Marlon, he plays a character named Marlon. The sitcom's theme song is a somewhat melodic zen koan recitation of only the word "Marlon."

Given Wayans' background as part of probably the most collaborative family in recent Hollywood history, the biggest problem with Marlon is at least somewhat ironic. In giving himself a vehicle that showcases a lot of the things he does very well, Wayans has made a family comedy in which the family contributes almost nothing and is consistently fading into the background behind an oversized lead performance.

Wayans' character, Marlon, as co-created by Wayans and Christopher Moynihan, is a YouTube sensation whose series dubbed The Marlon Way has six million subscribers and lends itself to built-in hashtags like — you guessed it! — "#Marlon." Marlon has an amicable divorce/co-parenting situation with his ex Ashley (Essence Atkins), meaning he spends a lot of his time in their old house dispensing advice to bookish daughter Marley (Notlim Taylor) and rambunctious son Zack (Amir O'Neil). Rounding out the limited ensemble are Ashley's sassy best friend Yvette (Bresha Webb) and Marlon's friend Stevie (Diallo Riddle), who has been sleeping on his couch for two years. (The exact timeline of Marlon and Ashley's relationship/marriage/separation/divorce is needlessly confusing, but may relate to either the year-plus delay between pickup and airing, or to the possibility that other than YouTube references, the show could have been produced in the early '90s and may have been originally written then.)

By rights, Marlon Wayans should have been the King of the Wayanses long ago. Whatever you think of the quality of films like White Chicks and Little Man, he's a fearless comedian, while his dramatic bona fides were more than proven in Requiem for a Dream. I'm sure there are reasons why that performance in Darren Aronofsky's harrowing classic didn't spawn similar future roles, but the reasons could range from "personal preferences" to "institutional racism" to "Dungeons & Dragons and Norbit."

Watching the first six episodes of Marlon, I was struck frequently by how great Wayans is capable of being. At least three or four times per episode, everything around him seems to pause to allow Wayans to go off on an extended riff on everything from how to handle bullies, nostalgic crap he refused to throw out from a storage locker, how his life was different growing up in the projects or why cosmetic surgery is bad. These riffs feature accents, limb-bending physicality and even, in one particularly admirable moment, a full box jump onto a kitchen island. Nobody worries about how these riffs impact the flow or pacing of the episodes, because basically they are the episodes and once you begin to expect and recognize them, a fun game is to watch the other actors standing stone-faced trying to avoid cracking and ruining the take or to imagine how an editor probably could have just let Wayans ramble on for a full 22 minutes.

No other actor in the cast is allowed comparable moments, and none of the other characters are allowed to play off of Marlon in his moments, so they end up casting attention on how little humor there is in the rest of the episodes. Yvette and Stevie are multi-purpose sidekicks and they both get an assortment of archetypal traits to mock, but it's no slight to Webb or Riddle that you could remove the characters from every episode without any impediment to any plotline. Both kids are there to have sitcom kid problems that only Marlon can solve, but not to be funny or likable on their own.

Atkins' Ashley isn't quite as hands-on-her-hips disposable as some other sitcom wives, but I'm pretty sure she doesn't get to play a joke of her own until the sixth episode, spending most of her time shaking her head in faux exaggeration at Marlon's antics or smiling through strained patience. Even in the show's emotional scenes, she's largely present to witness Marlon's realizations or beats of catharsis, What's notable in every episode's heartfelt climax is both how good Wayans is when he sets the schtick aside, but also how one-sided and unshared these beats are.

Marlon isn't an issue-oriented sitcom in the vein of NBC's dearly departed The Carmichael Show. When Marlon and Stevie enter a scene debating "the blackest names ever," Ashley chides them with, "Tackling the big issues, I see," but the series is interested in little revelations about parenting or relationships or family and not airing all sides of the debate on gun control or euthanasia or gentrification or any of the other things The Carmichael Show went after.

The Carmichael Show comparison would be unfair to Marlon if it only went as deep as the skin color of the central family. However, not only did NBC relentlessly advertise Marlon during the closing run of Carmichael Show episodes, but the network is treating the shows in nearly identical fashion, right down to what amounts to extended shelving followed by a late summer double-dip airing strategy in which any success or a renewal would be close to accidental. Leaving out comparisons to the shows' very different level of aspirations, I'd say that what Jerrod Carmichael did best on his show was understand his own limitations and spread the funny throughout a deep and talented ensemble cast, and although Wayans has fewer limitations as a performer, he'd have been wise to realize something similar and not leave his TV family as such an afterthought. As impressive as Wayans' skillset is, Marlon is too much Marlon.

Cast: Marlon Wayans, Essence Atkins, Notlim Taylor, Amir O'Neil, Bresha Webb, Diallo Riddle
Creators: Marlon Wayans and Christopher Moynihan
Premieres: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)