(Sun. (8), 8:30-9 p.m., KTLA) Taped in Los Angeles at CBS Television City by Winifred Hervey Prods., Brillstein/Grey Communications and Stan Lathan TV. Executive producers, Brad Grey, Bernie Brillstein, Winifred Hervey, Stan Lathan; supervising producer, Walter Allen Bennett Jr.; producers, Wenda Fong, Manny Basanese; co-producers, Michael Rowe, B. Mark Seabrooks; director, Lathan; writer-creator, Hervey; camera, Robert F. Liu; editor, Judith Burke; technical director, Ervin Hurd Jr.; production designer, Ken Johnson; sound, Otto Svoboda; music, Patrice Rushen; casting, Monica Swann. Cast: Steve Harvey, Cedric “The Entertainer,” Wendy Racquel Robinson, Marlin Santana, Tracy Vilar, Netfa Perry, William Lee Scott. Steve Harvey deserves more than the forced “The Steve Harvey Show,” and what’s more, the talented standup comic once had more. Two years ago, Harvey centered a promising, warm little family comedy called “Me and the Boys” on ABC that cast him as a single father raising three boys with an agreeable tough-love panache.
It wasn’t exactly a scream, but it was comfortable, establishing Harvey as a legitimate primetime presence. What’s more, “Me and the Boys” did pretty decently in the ratings sandwiched between Tuesday night’s “Full House” and “Home Improvement,” finishing 20th with Nielsen for the season and beating out such CBS comedies as “Cybill” and “Dave’s World.” But Harvey’s show was burdened with iffy demographics at a network shifting its focus and was canceled, while shows with half its ratings ticked on. However, “The Steve Harvey Show” is a typically pandering comedy from the WB that takes a smart sitcom performer and magically transforms him into a buffoonish black stereotype. The effect is rather like watching a Lexus drive into a ditch. Harvey plays Steve Hightower, a onetime prominent R&B musician and Commodore wannabe who is forced by circumstances to take a gig teaching music at an inner-city Chicago high school.
It’s one of network TV’s favorite equations: black + teacher = tough neighborhood. Against all odds and logic, teacher Steve winds up becoming the bestest buddy to a motley collection of students who include a smug Romeo named, uh, Romeo (Merlin Santana); his saucy girlfriend (Tracy Vilar); a school tough (William Lee Scott); and an annoying airhead (NetfaPerry). Then there is the jovial gym teacher (Cedric “The Entertainer” ). About all that stands between this teacher and grade school nirvana is his principal (Wendy Racquel Robinson), who just happens to be the same girl whom Steve regularly made the butt of fat jokes in high school. Seems she’s hired him to get revenge. Oooooooh! Contrived subplot! When the going gets tough for this teach, he pulls out his sax or bangs on the piano and makes everything better again.
Who needs real life when you’ve got cool tunes? Despite coming out of the stable (Brillstein/Grey) that created and produces the brilliant “Larry Sanders Show” for HBO, “The Steve Harvey Show” has remarkably few laughs. The couple it manages spring from Harvey’s savvy way with a one-liner, not the lame script. The show plays shamelessly off such black stereotypes as big-butt jokes and jive talk, a strained formula that the WB appears oddly to have adopted as its mandate. It’s an unfortunate development for Harvey, who truly coulda been a contendah.