Sitcoms of a Certain Age
Cedric the Entertainer’s comfy The Soul Man: Another TV Land comedy that could’ve been made 20 years ago.
Photo courtesy TV Land.
The classic 20th-century sitcom lives on in contented retirement, way up the dial on TV Land. The masses are watching CBS's sitcoms and NBC's Whitney update the traditional three-camera comedy—with the couch in the middle and the studio audience in front—for contemporary tastes. The job of TV Land, in contrast, is to curate a lineup that will satisfy antiquated tastes, which is a good niche if you can get it. The network, a corporate cousin of Nick at Nite, has been programming classics since 1996. These days we've got I Love Lucy for an early lunch, Bonanza before the early bird special, M*A*S*H with a post-prandial martini, That '70s Show for a midnight snack, and—at four o'clock in the morning, with the network courting a select demographic of hard-partying Don Knotts fetishists—Three's Company.
The foundations of TV Land's prime-time schedule include Home Improvement and other lower-brow hit comedies, many of which involve middle-age white men living in the Tri-State area with their nagging wives. Two years ago, it launched its first original series, Hot in Cleveland, on which showbiz veterans (Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick) play showbiz veterans resettling themselves in Ohio, on a set with a couch in the middle and Betty White attending to the Polish jokes in her role as the elderly caretaker. Its success led to subsequent TV Land originals including Happily Divorced (with Fran Drescher as a gay divorcée splitting a home with her gay ex-husband) and The Exes (where talent from Scrubs, Seinfeld, and 3rd Rock From the Sun perform scenes on a midlife dating-and-roommates theme). On each of these shows, the material, like the characters, is of a certain age, and that is the point.
TV Land’s latest is The Soul Man (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET). Given the network's retro focus, you would be forgiven for assuming that they have blackened up C. Thomas Howell for an adaptation of the 1986 film Soul Man—or even, owing to an apocalyptic clerical error, mistakenly rebooted the late-‘90s Dan Aykroyd series of the same title. But, no, the show is a Hot in Cleveland spin-off starring Cedric the Entertainer as the Rev. Boyce "The Voice" Ballentine, an R&B crooner who takes over his father's church in St. Louis.
Boyce's father is cranky. His brother is quippily wayward. His daughter is in talks to film an episode of MTV's My Super Sweet 16. His wife (played by Niecy Nash) has a hair salon that she wants all the biddies in the pews to patronize. His eternal savior is the addressee of regular asides, with Cedric delivering an inevitable pun to an overhead camera early on: "Look, God, you've taken me from singing soul to saving souls, but I could sure use a sign that I'm doing the right thing here." Or consider the moment where Boyce, amid a domestic squabble, says to his maker, "You never married. That kept you infallible." Well, that's amusing enough, but the line keeps going—"... but once you're married, you know you're fallible"—so that the joke, so busy underlining itself, stumbles and falls.
No matter. The show, warm and cheesy, fits right in as another nacho plate on the network's menu of comfort food, another new sitcom that plays like a re-enactment of an old one. A large part of Cedric's charm flows from his legible self-conception as an "entertainer"—as something more than a stand-up comedian and other than an actor. The best moments in The Soul Man—and they do not get a lot of competition from the rest of the text—involve his singing. At the start of the pilot, Boyce, raiding the fridge like Marge's Homie or Claire's Cosby, improvises a song as he discovers there's no jam for his bread, a nod to a similar bit from The Original Kings of Comedy. Later, after resolving the episode by delivering a sermon, he leads the faithful in a gospel number tweaked to chucklingly comment on thine old wacky antics. And the audience will want to hear more music from Boyce's secular career. Two episodes in, we've only gotten parts of a slow jam seemingly titled "I Wanna Have Sex With You," a corny come-on in the tradition of “Dick in a Box" and Beck's "Debra."
The musical moments give Cedric’s preacher the aspect of a song-and-dance man within the show. Dropping into the action like a cabaret host, he advances plots that offer something for everyone in the family. The meddling-grumpy-dad storylines lightly explore Boomer/Gen-X differences; the teen daughter storylines offer good moral fiber, or would, if they had any substance; the usual horny-hubby stuff—Boyce tiptoeing to the boudoir with a can of whipped cream and a spatula—is so broad that young adolescents might not even be embarrassed to watch alongside their parents. All the TV Land flock, rapt with nostalgia, will feel the spirit of the ancient sitcom rise from the set, cherubim cackling on the laugh track.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.