A new CBS sitcom aims to examine race relations through the prism of a predominantly African-American neighborhood that suddenly has unusual new neighbors to contend with -- a white family.
This is the basis for “The Neighborhood,” starring Cedric the Entertainer as an African-American homeowner in this L.A. neighborhood of detached homes who is none too keen on rolling out the red carpet for his new white next-door neighbors (played by Max Greenfield of “New Girl” and Beth Behrs of “2 Broke Girls”).
Cedric’s character, Calvin Butler, is generally suspicious of white people. In the series premiere, he voices his belief that no matter how nice they might seem on the outside, white people still secretly harbor racist views about African-Americans.
“Exceedingly nice” is an accurate way to describe the white character played by Greenfield -- Dave Johnson, a name that is positioned in the show for comedic purposes as a “black” name.
But Johnson’s warmth and overt friendliness fuels Calvin’s suspicion that his new neighbor is being nice just because Calvin is black, not because of any other personal characteristics Calvin might possess that would make him likable, regardless of his skin color.
If that last paragraph was a tad complicated, then it serves as a pretty fair representation of the overall tone of this show.
It wants to be a show about a hot-button issue -- race -- but it also wants to succeed as a mainstream comedy on CBS.
Thus, you get a sitcom containing all the elements you expect in a CBS comedy -- gales of canned laughter, homes whose interior floor plans are wholly unrealistic, and the occasional penis joke (at least two of them in the premiere episode of “The Neighborhood”).
When watching the pilot episode of “The Neighborhood,” one gets the feeling that the original sales pitch for this show may have included the phrase “black Archie Bunker.”
However, Cedric’s Calvin character emerges as less of a black Archie Bunker than a black Mike Baxter -- the conservative older man played by Tim Allen in “Last Man Standing” who remains mindful of traditional masculine roles.
It is probably just as well because a black Archie Bunker probably would not fly. The network may have guessed rightfully that audiences today would not stand for that kind of character, black or white.
Elsewhere in the series premiere, occasional speeches and dialogues about race are peppered throughout that are delivered in serious, hushed tones with no canned-laughter support -- signaling somewhat awkwardly that these are the show’s “serious” moments.
Fortunately, however, CBS provided more than just one episode of “The Neighborhood” for preview. In Episode Two, the “racial differences” theme seems less forced than in the pilot.
And the neighbors seem to warm up to each other in ways that seemed impossible in the premiere.
“The Neighborhood” premieres Monday (October 1) at 8 p.m. Eastern.