Tyler Perry's House of Payne



9-9:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 6

From its origin to its distribution, "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" is a different breed of sitcom. Perry, the writer, producer and director of sleeper hit "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," took his idea for a sitcom to the networks several years ago but didn't like the changes they wanted to make.

So he sunk $5 million of his own money into the production of 10 episodes. Last summer, the episodes played on 10 large-market TV stations. The test run generated impressive ratings.

That led to a deal with TBS which, for a reported $200 million, ordered 100 episodes. TBS will have the exclusive window to the shows until September 2008, when they start a new life in first-run broadcast syndication.

It's a truly impressive story -- far more impressive than the series itself, which can be described as a cross between "The Jeffersons" and "What's Happening!!" There's undeniable talent among the cast, but the characters are flat, the stories are weak, and the humor gets repetitive and predictable.

In the premiere of this extended-family sitcom, we meet Curtis and Ella Payne (LaVan Davis, Cassi Davis). He's a big, grumpy fire chief with a good word for no one; she's a big-hearted churchgoer. Their college-age son, Calvin (Lance Gross), majors in fast-buck schemes.

Across the street are Curtis' nephew, CJ (Allen Payne), his seemingly responsible wife Janine (Demetria McKinney) and their two children: carefree Malik (Larramie "Doc" Shaw) and precocious and TV-cute Jazmine (China Anne McClain). When their house catches fire, CJ's family moves in with his aunt and uncle.

The premiere, in which a school bully takes Malik's lunch money, initially plays like an ordinary comedy, with a few hearty laughs. Then, Curtis goes to school for a conference with the principal. In walks the bully's foster parent, Mrs. Simmons (Tyler Perry in drag, re-creating his famous character, Madea). In mere seconds, the show transitions from sitcom to farce. Instantly, Perry becomes the center of his own show, to the detriment of the story and the other characters. It's like someone grabbed the remote and, boom, now you're watching "Mad TV."

Two other episodes sent by TBS are less jarring, but only slightly. In these episodes, the characters barely pause from their rapid-fire insults and broad comedy to deal with a family member's serious drug addiction, which is spiraling out of control between laughs.

There's not a thing wrong with incorporating a serious, prosocial element into the sitcom, but it needs to be dealt with in a far less compartmentalized manner.

Will it get better? Hard to tell. In interviews, Perry said he wrote the first 10 episodes hurriedly and that he learned from them. Still, "House of Payne's" two- to three-episode-a-week production schedule leaves scant time to improve on early drafts.

Tyler Perry and Debmar-Mercury
Executive producers: Tyler Perry, Reuben Cannon
Supervising producer: Roger Bobb
Director-creator: Tyler Perry
Teleplay: Kellie R. Griffin
Director of photography: Robin Strickland
Production designer: Ina Mayhew
Editor: Joe Binford Jr.
Music: Herb Magwood
Set designer: Cheryl Adams
Casting: Kim Williams, Shay Griffin, Abbey Lessanu
Curtis "Pops" Payne: LaVan Davis
CJ Payne: Allen Payne
Ella Payne: Cassi Davis
Calvin Payne: Lance Gross
Malik Payne: Larramie "Doc" Shaw
Jazmine Payne: China Anne McClain
Janine Payne: Demetria McKinney
Mrs. Mabel Simmons: Tyler Perry
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