In the US: Sundays, 8.30pm, Fox
The choice of how to classify a show can turn a miss into a hit – or a hit into a miss. For example, take the choice of whether a show is a sitcom (particularly a multi-camera sitcom with a studio audience) or a comedy. You can get away with different kinds of performance, jokes and silliness in a sitcom that you can’t get away with in a comedy. But the pressure on a comedy to be funny isn’t as great as with a sitcom. Pick the wrong box to put your show into and an audience will go in expecting one thing, get another, and switch off.
I was reminded of this as I watched Rel, Fox’s new sitcom based on the comedy of writer-star Lil Rel Howery. It sees Howery playing a successful, hardworking father and husband on the West Side of Chicago, whose life is perfectly on track. That is, until he finds out his wife is having an affair with his own barber.
They separate and his wife moves away, so he has to rebuild his life as a long-distance single dad. Offering Rel support are his best friend and unfiltered sounding board, Jessica “Jess Hilarious” Moore and his recently out-of-jail, excitable and overly encouraging younger brother, Jordan L Jones, as well as his recently widowed dad (Sinbad).
The show sounds like almost a racist stereotype of African-American culture. We have a male character with a broken family whose social life revolves around church and the barbers. His brother’s a drug dealer who’s just got out of jail.
Jokes? I wasn’t expecting any. Certainly, the writing starts out clunky, with ‘lil brother’ shouting out ‘Big Bro’ as he walks into his first scene, just so we know who he is, for example. God forbid we were in any doubt as to their relationship for more than a nanosecond; I’m confidently expecting he’ll greet his brother in the exact same way in every subsequent scene in every subsequent episode, too.
The studio audience laughed. I didn’t. Every time the lighting seemed to crank up a notch in the studio, so my stony silence cranked up another notch on the Mohs scale. Every time an actor hammed up their line even more and gurned to get a greater cackle from the crowd at the back, so I willed from the universe to end.
God damn multi-camera Fox sitcoms. Or it could have been CBS – they’re indistinguishable these days.
Not as bad as all that
But I had the subtitles on, as it happened, and couldn’t work out how to turn them off. And as I watched the lines go past, I noticed something. The writing wasn’t that bad. If this had been a regular comedy – or even a dramedy – it might have even have been quite good in places. Not brilliant, for sure, but at least on a par with something like Kidding. There was some intelligence going on.
And it wasn’t quite as racist as all that, either. Rel’s character isn’t a deadbeat, but a regular middle class professional with a decent job – a nurse, at that – who Facetimes his kids so he can be a good dad. He’s got a female best friend and listens to her advice. He’s close with his family.
Rel wasn’t bad. It had just been stuck in the wrong box. If it had ended up on HBO with some slightly better actors, it could have been a male midwestern Insecure.
Unfortunately, that box killed it for me. Even with the benefits of the revelation bestowed on me by the subtitles, I just couldn’t get passed the incredibly irritating audience and all the bad acting it evoked.
So spare a thought for Rel, a show you might have been able to enjoy if only it had woken up on a different side of the bed one morning.