'South Side': TV Review

An authentic and absurdist love song to a city.
7/24/2019

Comedy Central's sitcom homes in on the lovable hustlers and entrepreneurs who reside in inner-city Chicago.

On Comedy Central’s bonkers-funny sitcom South Side, a venal police officer (Chandra Russell) impulse-buys a cheap and dilapidated Chicago apartment building while on duty, only to discover that one of her new tenants is a long-forgotten local Civil Rights icon living there rent-free. Far from the stooped little old lady she seems, Miss Dorothy (Renee Lockett) blazes hell when her new landlord tries to evict her, giving pugnacious Sergeant Turner a run for her money.

“Fuck Coretta Scott King!” the elderly woman bellows when Turner implies Dorothy is washed-up. “Now, you may know her as King, but I just know her as Retta. Always thought she was sooooo funny. Well the bitch never made ME laugh once!” Turner instinctively reaches for her gun in a jaw-dropping (and riotous) escalation of the moment.

I’m sure this sounds like a drama, but in the hands of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon alums Diallo Riddle, Bashir Salahuddin and Michael Blieden, the scene is pure frenetic fun. And yet, it’s also a portrait of deeper dichotomies: progressivism versus police brutality; aging do-gooder activists versus young money-hungry entrepreneurs; and the legacy of Chicago’s black communities versus the city's gentrifying landscape. Welcome to South Side, where every laugh feels like a private in-joke between the writers and the audience, and every frame an absurdist love song to the inner-city Chicago neighborhoods of Salahuddin’s origins. Filmed on real Chicago streets and brimming with nonprofessional actors/real-life South Side residents, the sitcom pulses with upbeat authenticity. But don’t mistake the writers' empathy for softness — the show is damn funny.

South Side stars Sultan Salahuddin (Bashir's brother) and Kareme Young as Simon and Kareem, a pair of newly minted community college graduates and small-time hustlers who are always cooking up some petty scheme — from black market Viagra to street corner popcorn — with an eye toward upward mobility. As you can imagine, these ventures always fizzle.

Their foils are clashing police officers Sergeant Turner (Russell) and Officer Goodnight (Bashir Salahuddin), who patrol the working-class Englewood neighborhood where Simon and Kareem live. Unapologetically corrupt Turner is a cheerful bully to priggish Goodnight, a goody two-shoes and aspiring detective who does stuff like adopt a white child for bonus points from the precinct. (The delight of their sparring only increases when you realize Russell and Salahuddin are married in real life.)

While Turner revels in the fiscal opportunities around every corner on this beat, her own cupidity as palpable as Simon and Kareem's, Goodnight is a grade-A bootlicker trying to get promoted back to the affluent North Side. (He’s frequently insulted with the epithet "Carl Winslow," a nod to Family Matters' husky policeman patriarch.)

The show is so fast-paced, it takes about two or three episodes to settle into the frenzied rhythm of the storytelling. In just 20-plus minutes, the pilot flies from Simon and Kareem's joint graduation to Simon’s arrest for unpaid child support to his arraignment to his getting hired — and then fired — from his first white-collar job, only to end up back at his old workplace, Rent-T-Own, as a local repo man.

Appliance rental business Rent-T-Own serves as our Dunder Mifflin, each of its dead-eyed employees a universe unto themselves. This includes Lil Rel Howery’s Bishop, a hilariously sycophantic tattler in the vein of Dwight Schrute, and Nefetari Spencer’s crazed basketball mom, obsessed with Early Woods-ing her teenager to an athletic scholarship (while ignoring her STEM-focused younger son).

My favorite of the team, however, is Stacy (Zuri Salahuddin, adorably acidic), a young woman with zero fucks to give, especially while she's idly chatting on the phone with her Tinder boo during staff meetings. Her savvy brains, however, render her indispensable to their boss, Quincy (Quincy Young, Kareme's real-life twin).

Simon and Kareem are the classic comedy numb-nuts we've seen before — another day, another harebrained ploy — which is why their storylines, while amusing, don't resonate as sharply as the police officers'. Turner and Goodnight feel innovative — bumbling cops who must learn how to relate to the very people on whom they're enforcing the law. Russell particularly sizzles as the vain but lovable Sergeant Turner, a goddess of discord always on the lookout for a bribe or a deal. ("Ho is life," she confidently declares to her partner.) Riddle, Salahuddin and Blieden shrewdly know their characters, and the series blossoms when we spend less time on Simon and Kareem’s picaresque adventures and more time with the intermingling ensemble.

South Side is smartly serialized, and the clever little details/one-liners will catch you off guard — from Kareem's perennial enthusiasm for astronomy (his college major) to characters introducing themselves to each other by sharing the streets they grew up on and the high schools they attended. One character on fellow Chicagoan Kanye West: "I could kill that man! But I could also kill for that man."

As a native East Coaster, I appreciate being included on these subtleties without being deluged with exposition, even if I don't always understand all the context. This minutia demonstrates the producers' trust in their audience, their willingness to educate on the culture of their setting and their joy in honoring the viewers who do intrinsically understand these jokes. South Side is somehow niche and broad at the same time, its Seinfeldian inanities an obvious draw. Ho is life, indeed.

Cast: Sultan Salahuddin, Kareme Young, Quincy Young, Chandra Russell, Bashir Salahuddin, Lil Rel Howery, Zuri Salahuddin, Nathaniel “Earthquake” Stroman, Diallo Riddle

Executive Producers: Diallo Riddle, Bashir Salahuddin, Michael Blieden

Premieres: Wednesday, July 24, at 10:30 p.m. (Comedy Central)