'The Neighborhood' and 'Happy Together': TV Review

Broad new comedies that at least have the potential to get better.
10/1/2018

CBS' Monday comedies make for an easy-to-pair duo of shows that premiere with strong casts — including Cedric the Entertainer, Max Greenfield, Tichina Arnold and Damon Wayans Jr. — and hacky executions.

It would not be at all surprising to check back in on CBS' new Monday comedies in a few months and discover that The Neighborhood and Happy Together have become very funny, appealing shows.

If you want, I can make that check and let you know, because both The Neighborhood and Happy Together premiere this week with pilots that place premise above punchlines, both thwarted by writing that feels far below the skill levels of very fine casts.

The Neighborhood has been given the 8 p.m. slot, appropriate since it's almost impossible not to get a few laughs from an ensemble featuring Cedric the Entertainer, Max Greenfield, Tichina Arnold and Beth Behrs.

Greenfield and Behrs play the Johnsons, a Midwestern couple who move with their son Grover (Hank Greenspan) into a predominantly African-American neighborhood (unnamed, because this is not a show that cares for specificity) of Los Angeles. They move in next door to Calvin Butler (Cedric the Entertainer), an Archie Bunker type who lives with wife Tina and son Malcolm (Sheaun McKinney). The Butlers have been in this neighborhood for generations and he's shocked that despite the last name "Johnson" and a son named "Grover," the new family on the block is white.

Over the course of 22 minutes, we discover that — EXAGGERATED GASP — it's possible for white people also to experience racial discrimination. Or, at least, a few superficial judgments based on race.

The Neighborhood was created by Jim Reynolds and, as relates to its four main characters, it has all of the cutting-edge social commentary of a CBS sitcom from the early 1970s. Cedric the Entertainer puffs his chest with exaggerated disapproval, Arnold crosses her arms with exaggerated exasperation, Greenfield grins and leers with exaggerated obsequiousness and Behrs giggles nervously as she learns phrases like "throwing shade" and "thirsty," making herself the wokest housewife of 2015 ("woke" being a word I assume she'll learn in a very special May sweeps episode…in 2020).

Greenfield and Behrs were both late recasts and it's not clear that Reynolds has been able to rebuild these characters around what either actor does well. Greenfield's Dave is a conflict mediator and his well-intentioned optimism becomes quickly exhausting, especially when he's forced into groan-worthy dialogue like sitting down at a chess table and gamely announcing, "I'm white!" to the roar of the crowd. Cedric and Arnold's characters are tailored to only a small corner of their gifts and after seeing First Reformed and Survivor's Remorse, it's impossible to watch this and not feel like they're being shortchanged.

For all the core star power, the two actors who easily steal the pilot for The Neighborhood are McKinney and especially Marcel Spears as the Butlers' more successful son, who moved out of the neighborhood. The secret of their characters and why they're better than the show around them? They're the only two people in the pilot who seem to exist outside of this mummified racial binary and they approach the developing family conflict with a shade of nuance.

I simply can't believe that come episode four or five, Dave will still be saying accidentally racist things and getting flabbergasted and flustered and Calvin will still be going on rants about how white people who are too nice to black people (and who like Rihanna) are racist. The question is what The Neighborhood will then become and if it's something less dated and more worthy of its four main stars who are all, in theory, about as good a sitcom quartet as you could assemble.

It's even harder to tell what the fourth or fifth episode of Happy Together is going to be like, but again I wouldn't totally bet against a show fronted by Damon Wayans Jr. and Amber Stevens West with Chris Parnell in the supporting cast.

Wayans and West play Jake and Claire, who I think may be a middle-aged married couple from a 1980s sitcom, even though they're in their 30s and the show is set in the present day. You'd never know it from the nonstop litany of "We're so old and lame jokes!" which actually include their being a couple who like to make funny answering machine messages together, a thing they do for roughly 10 percent of the pilot. This show doesn't want you to be the slightest bit confused about how much of a rut they're in.

Into that rut comes pop star Cooper James (Felix Mallard), who definitely isn't based on Harry Styles even though Harry Styles is an executive producer on the show and it's loosely based on the period Styles crashed with executive producer Ben Winston.

Here, as fictionalized by creators Tim McAuliffe and Austen Earl, Jake is Cooper's accountant and when Cooper breaks up with his girlfriend, he flees the paparazzi in the most normal place he can imagine: Jake's house!

That's all the plot there is. Cooper is cool and lives a wild life and Jake and Claire initially try keeping up with him, before Cooper comes to sense the comfort of their banality. Even though Styles lived with Winston for an unexpectedly long time, it's tough to know how this series unfolds, which makes it a good thing that Cooper definitely isn't based on Styles.

Given the opportunity to sing, dance and flail around ridiculously in the pilot, Wayans and West try hard and I smiled frequently at their effort. In the one episode I've seen, Mallard is only asked to be perplexed by a couple talking only about their scheduled sex nights and need for 10+ hours of sleep and yet looking TV pretty, rested and fit at all times. He's convincing at not understanding what's going on or why. Whether that's acting remains to be seen.

CBS sitcoms start broad. For better or worse, that's just what they do. Sometimes they settle in and become more interesting (Mom). Sometimes they figure out how to play to the strengths of their stars and become better that way (The Big Bang Theory). Other times, perhaps more often, they don't.

For at least premiere week, this is an hourlong block of shows I don't like featuring stars whom I do.

The Neighborhood and Happy Together air Mondays at 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS, premiering Oct. 1.