There have been sitcoms about a white family in which an episode involved a black family moving into the neighborhood. Rarely is this a full series when it does happen. All In The Family had the Jeffersons (one of the many spin-offs from this show) and Family Ties had an episode where Steven’s friend at the PBS station wanted to move his family into the house next door. It’s usually intended to showcase the racial divide that still exists because people are stupid and think a variation of melanin affects your personality or something. I’m no scientist and even I know that’s stupid.
(And no, I will not be using the word “African-American” in this review. Unless you have dual citizenship you’re either African or American. Although one of these actors may be Canadian or something. I don’t know. You never hear of “African-Canadians”. What do you call black people in Africa? African-Africans? And what about Haitians? Right, back on topic.)
The Neighborhood, created by Jim Reynolds, decides to flip this scenario over and showcase a white family moving into a black neighborhood. I may make comparisons to All In The Family but this show doesn’t just follow one family with the other showing up now and then. It’s focused on the Butlers and the Johnsons, one black and the other white. However, this neighborhood is made of middle-class black people and that’s the hook. But does it reel in a hit?
The pilot focuses on the Butlers, a black family who can trace their place in this neighborhood in Los Angeles back a few generations. It also focuses on their new next door neighbor, a conflict manager and his wife, the latter becoming principal of a near-by “progressive” school. The conflict really comes from Calvin Butler (Cedric The Entertainer), an auto body worker who has some preconceived notions of white people. He’s convinced that Dave Johnson (Max Greenfield) is too friendly because he’s the kind of racist who has “lots of black friends” and finds Rhianna “very attractive” because they think it’s cool to hang with black people. (Frankly, finding Rhianna attractive doesn’t make him racist. It makes him straight. For the record I find her attractive…and given some of the songs she’s done a bit scary too.)
The pilot seems to indicate how the relationship between the two families will be. We know Dave and his wife Gemma (Beth Behrs) are from Michigan and that they’re going to have to deprogram some of the racist thoughts of their mother (I didn’t catch which one has the racist mom…it’s not one of THOSE relationships thank God!) put into the head of their son Grover (Hank Greenspan). Meanwhile Calvin has two grown sons; Malcolm (Sheaun McKinney) still lives at home because he can’t find work (I can relate) while Marty (Marcel Spears) has his own place because Calvin kicked him out as soon as he found a job, at least according to Malcolm. Then again Malcolm and his father don’t always get along. Gemma seems to get along with Calvin’s wife Tina (Tichina Arnold). The big conflict is between Calvin and Dave, as Calvin looks for any excuse to hate Dave and Dave keeps trying to win him over and sometimes making things worse.
The concept sounds like a good movie but as a series, I’m not quite convinced. It was curiosity (and the fact that Cedric is hilarious) that made me check it out. I like that they’re actually admitting there are enough black people with successful careers (not necessarily rich but not the usual inner city poor people) to have a full neighborhood. That’s something you don’t see on TV unless the black family or at least patriarch has to “reconnect with their blackness (whatever that means) because they’re “too white” (whatever that means). The cast is strong and the characters are interesting and fun to watch. I just wonder if this would have made a better movie than a series. It’s possible they can pull it off. The pilot was funny. I think maybe Calvin should have had at least one son or daughter closer to Grover’s age to give him someone to interact with. They risk making him superfluous to the cast, just an excuse to have dumb race jokes that make Dave and Gemma look more racist to Calvin. Having someone his own age and black (maybe parroting Calvin’s misplaced views on black people as a counterpoint to Grover doing the same with his grandmother) would have added some commentary about how kids are affected by the current racial divide. I’m not sure they’re really looking to make a strong commentary as much as just play off the idea of a white family in a middle-class all-black neighborhood but I can’t really tell from the pilot alone.
My final view on the show is kind of mixed. I may watch an episode or two in the future but it’s not a series I feel a strong urge to keep watching. And if I do it’s more for the cast than the concept. The cast plays well off of each other and the jokes are funny but while I don’t mind this isn’t an All In The Family style commentary on the world the idea is either too strong or not strong enough and I would have liked for the show to pick one so I could have a stronger opinion. There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe if you actually do something with it and I don’t think The Neighborhood pulls it off as well as it wants, at least in the pilot. The show could be better and I may look into it again. It’s just not something I’m immediately adding to my DVR schedule.