'Sherman's Showcase': TV Review

Niche-y, but hilarious.
7/31/2019

Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle's eight-part take-off on a fictional music and variety special is another IFC comedy that will be deeply, if not widely, loved.

None of IFC's comedies are likely to be in that vaunted Next Game of Thrones conversation, ratings-wise, but if you wait long enough, chances are good that eventually IFC is going to deliver an obscure-but-brilliant comedy targeted at whatever your particular odd niche happens to be. As a fan of the raunchy baseball-themed shenanigans of Brockmire and the ultra-nerdy non-fiction celebration of Documentary Now!, I don't know if this business model is sustainable, but I know I like it.

Next up in IFC's parade of wildly specific, wildly funny programming is Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle's Sherman's Showcase. I can't necessarily tell you if you, in particular, are hungry for a parody of Soul Train, American Bandstand or The Midnight Special, one whose voice ranges from broad mockery to sardonic satire to near-sincere homage, but if you are — and maybe if you didn't even know you were — the series offers a lot to laugh, and occasionally marvel, at.

The conceit of the show is that, as its introduction puts it, "For over 40 years, Sherman's Showcase has been a revolutionary black music/dance/entertainment program unlike anything else on TV, except for several other shows." The series plays as an eight-part anthology of half-hour themed cutdowns from a "partially complete" 23-episode DVD box set, available for what seems like a bargain basement price of $19.99.

Individual episodes focus on topics ranging from star Sherman McDaniel's (Salahuddin) background and the origins of the show, the show's "legendary" dancers, the predominantly African-American show's relationship with "white" music, one particularly famous 1995 episode shown in its near-entirety and, if you make it to the very end, a finale that does nothing less than explore an alternate-dimension time loop. Naturally.

Those episodes are a blend of tones and elements, covering what we should be interpreting as one of the great [fictional] long-running shows in television history and its host, who parlayed the show's success into what has apparently become an Oscar-nominated film career as well.

Each episode features several musical performances, some only seconds long and some stretching for minutes, some easily recognizable spoofs and some verging on straightforward period-friendly hits, produced by The Knocks' James Patterson and Benjamin Ruttner and written by Salahuddin and Riddle. Favorites include "Vicky, Is the Water Warm Enough?" from the Prince-esque Charade (guest star Vic Mensa), "Thursday Night" from the Debbie Harry-esque Sofee (guest star Eliza Coupe) and the early '90s hip-hop jam "Just Chill" from Craig Ski. Just as the Documentary Now! Original Cast Album take-off yielded a Co-Op! soundtrack, Sherman's Showcase is already slated for its own well-earned soundtrack.

There are movie trailer parodies, gameshow parodies, vintage commercials featuring guest pitchman Frederick Douglass and regular snapshot peeks at Sherman's Dancers, driven by increasingly personal and absurd biographical details. There are also behind-the-scenes interviews with McDaniel and his producer Dutch (Riddle), whose eyepatch in later-era interviews feels like one of many oddly serialized elements that stretch through the episodes in unexpected ways. There are jokes that require exactly no background for giggles, jokes that I'm sure I lack the encyclopedic cultural knowledge to identify and then there are jokes that I'm pretty sure are aimed directly at me, like a Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer toss-off. Director Matt Piedmont gets to work across this assortment of genres and it all holds together admirably.

In addition to Riddle and Salahuddin, who play multiple roles and song-and-dance acumen and physical comedy with the most precise of understated asides, Sherman's Showcase is populated by an impressive assortment of episodic and ongoing comic guest stars. The aforementioned Coupe and Mensa are both superb in episodes that focus on their "characters." There are brief and effective cameos by comics like Tiffany Haddish and Lil Rel Howery. Making more recurring appearances are the likes of Affion Crockett and Bresha Webb, who plays several roles and shines in her impersonation of Mary J. Blige. There's some blurring of reality and fiction on the celebrity side, in that Webb's Blige and appearances by actual guest star Morris Day and executive producer and guest star John Legend are treated roughly the same way, which made me appreciate Day and Legend's comic chops all the more.

It's almost impossible to find a sketch show, first season or otherwise, that achieves perfect in-episode and cross-series consistency, and as good as Sherman's Showcase is, it's not immune to patches of bumpiness. Sometimes jokes work better in micro, like blink-and-miss posters for movies Sherman produced, than in extended form, like when those movie posters are given padded and occasionally laggy trailers. The fourth episode, focusing on Sherman's various industry rivalries, never really coalesces, but it's followed promptly by the hilarious "The Ladies of the Showcase" installment driven by Webb's bravura turn as Blige. Watched in a binge, even though episode-long lulls don't last long, and the cumulative jokes build nicely. I really can't imagine how the time loop finale plays as a stand-alone if you were watching weekly.

My favorite thing about most of my favorite recent IFC comedies is that, on the surface, they sound like they might have material enough only for a single sketch themselves. Brockmire started as a wonderful one-joke Funny-or-Die gag and has become an impressive portrait of addiction and recovery. I'm eternally amazed at how Documentary Now! is able to keep digging deeper and deeper into the non-fiction catalogue. Sherman's Showcase has already, after eight episodes, proven how many variations Salahuddin and Riddle can find in this format, and I'm looking forward to seeing more outtakes from this 23-DVD set.

Creators-stars: Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (IFC)