The Neighborhood will undoubtedly drive a certain contingent of people crazy, but it’s legitimately funny and has a lot of promise if handled the right way.
In 2018 you might argue that the last thing we need is a sitcom like The Neighborhood, which builds all of its comedy on the flaky foundations of contemporary race relations. It’s about a while family that move into a black neighbourhood, and the black family that find their presence hilarious and aggravating, in about equal measure.
Lots of people will be suspicious of and aggravated by a show that plays up division and racial stereotypes for laughs; lots of people would consider such a show to be “part of the problem”. But that’s mostly just a juvenile way to sweep these issues under the rug and pretend they don’t exist rather than address them head-on. Of course some black people have preconceived ideas about white people, and of course some white people have preconceived ideas about black people. To pretend otherwise is silly. And I’m happy that The Neighborhood doesn’t, especially since, at least in the pilot, it builds to a frank conversation about race relations that feels like the kind of thing the show is ultimately trying to encourage. (Rel is also doing this over on FOX.)
Cedric the Entertainer plays Calvin Butler, a grouchy mechanic who assumes, for no real reason, that his new neighbour Dave Johnson (Max Greenfield) and his family are racists. There are, according to him, two types of racist: those that hate black people, and those that love black people. Dave, a helplessly try-hard professional “conflict mediator”, falls into the latter category. Most of the punchlines in the pilot are about how that’s a distinction Dave can’t challenge; if he tries to be nice, he’s a racist, and if he doesn’t, he’s a racist. This isn’t an accident.
By making Dave’s plight frustratingly unwinnable, The Neighborhood gets at something pretty real and authentic about how people see and communicate with each other – prejudices stem from generations of cultural experience, and aren’t easily shelved. And why should they be? Obviously for the betterment of society as a whole, sure. But it’s not enough to simply expect that you, no matter how well you know yourself, should be treated any differently, even if you feel you deserve to be. That’s what’s funny about Dave’s near-constant social blunders; he’s trying so hard because he isn’t racist, which just makes him look more and more racist. That’s funny, at least to me, and happens all the time. It isn’t fun trying to convince people that you aren’t something they’ve assumed you are without evidence, but, again, it happens all the time. And like Calvin’s unemployed son Malcolm (Sheaun McKinney) says at the end of the pilot, it’s a lot easier for some people to put aside their expectations than others.
Calvin’s wife, Tina (Tichina Arnold), is more willing to get along, and quickly befriends Dave’s wife, Gemma (Beth Behrs), mostly by teaching her slang which she revels in using to prove she’s understood it. The irony is that Gemma is, initially, more affronted by her neighbours’ assumptions than Dave is, yet she makes less of a fool of herself than he does precisely for that reason. By trying to be blasé he just seems sneaky, which is also funny, but will need to be used sparingly if it’s to keep working.
Funniest is Marcel Spears as Calvin and Tina’s other son, Marty, who’s so up-front about what’s going on that he’s basically a stand-in for the audience whose job is to highlight the absurdity of all this so it feels okay to laugh at. But he runs with that role and steals every scene he’s in, while also seeming like the most switched-on member of either family; he’s perfectly open about how his family feels and why, but it’s also clear that he thinks it’s ridiculous.
The Neighborhood has a great cast with crackling chemistry, but more important is that I found it hysterical, and I suspect anyone without an axe to grind will think so too. It occasionally ventures into territory that is a little tone-deaf and awkward, but that’s to be expected with this kind of material; what matters is not only that the show’s funny, but that it seems to have a point to make. I’m moving in.