Brothers': Last of the black network sitcoms
Fox revives the black family sitcom
STUDIO CITY, Calif. - Why visit the set of the new Fox comedy "Brothers"? Well, to paraphrase its co-star CCH Pounder - the last person I expected to see in an old-style sitcom - because I could.
I wasn't going because I thought this show might be an Emmy contender next season. Nor was my intent malicious, like seeing if ex-NFL lineman Michael Strahan would trip over his lines, or the wheelchair of his co-star, while trying to make the transition to comedy actor.
Mostly I went because "Brothers," conventional as it appears on the surface, seemed to be an awfully interesting show.
First, it is a new entry in a dying breed: the African-American network comedy. It is the only representative this fall of that subgenre, invented 20 years ago by Fox, when it used "In Living Color" and other shows to lure minority and younger viewers. The black sitcom gave liftoff to the careers of Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx, among others, but has fallen victim to low ratings and cable competitors (including reruns of older black sitcoms on BET).
Also, "Brothers" is a throwback comedy that's shot like a play. As Chill Mitchell, one of the stars, notes, "it's as close to live theater as you get," with three or four cameras set up to capture the action. This "multi-camera" format is what launched TV's sitcom era nearly 60 years ago when CBS used it for "I Love Lucy."
Oh, and "Brothers" might have the wildest casting of any new show on TV. The mom is played by Pounder, an intense dramatic character actor perhaps best known as Claudette, the female detective who could hold her own in a pen of testosterone on "The Shield." Her husband is played by Carl Weathers, aka Apollo Creed from the "Rocky" films. The brothers are played by Strahan and Mitchell. As a bonus, Lenny Clarke, the most preposterously funny character actor working in TV today, happens to be on the set that day, shooting a guest role as a gullible white guy who will believe anything black people say about themselves.
And after that setup, I feel obliged to mention this: "Brothers" really is not that bad a show.
"There are more black people working in the White House than there are on network television," Don Reo joked. Wait, he's got another: "The only other black comedic character on TV is Cleveland (Fox's "The Cleveland Show," premiering Sunday) - and he's a cartoon who's voiced by a white guy."
Reo, the executive producer in charge of "Brothers," broke into network TV in 1970. He's written episodes of "Sanford and Son," "All in the Family," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Blossom" (which he created), "The John Larroquette Show" (where he gave Chill Mitchell his first comedic role) and, more recently, a string of African-American themed comedies: "My Wife And Kids," "Everybody Hates Chris" and now "Brothers."
"Everybody Hates Chris" was a single-camera comedy. Writers and critics have fallen in love with the form, which allows for more filmic elements - weird camera angles (as in "Malcolm in the Middle"), documentary-style realism ("The Office" and ABC's new "Modern Family"), outdoor scenes (HBO's "Bored to Death") and quick-cut edits ("Scrubs").
Right now Reo is delighted not to be working on one.
"That was a lot of work, let me tell you - and there's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," he said. Reruns of a traditional, multi-camera sitcom like "Two and a Half Men" typically command top dollar in the syndication market, while a single-camera show like "Chris" makes far less in syndication because none has ever drawn that many viewers.