In a peculiar interlude during last spring’s schedule-setting mayhem, ABC flew the cast of “The Big House” to New York and then unceremoniously left the program off its primetime lineup. Yet what makes that maneuver all the more baffling is finally seeing the show, which is a lightyear or two ahead of the other “TGIF” comedies ABC has developed recently. Springing out of the gate with well-defined characters, this charming series takes a quantum leap toward solving the “crossover” conundrum by being flat-out funny — a claim too few family sitcoms, black or white, can currently make.
The larger question is whether such qualitative considerations will matter, as the show arrives a few weeks before the May sweeps — heightening pressure to perform — in a time period where creative expectations have been shaped by “Married to the Kellys.” There’s also nothing terribly distinctive to sell the concept in a TV logline — essentially, it’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in reverse — underscoring yet again that when it comes to comedy, nothing trumps execution.
So credit Kevin Hart, exec producer Stephen Engel and everyone else involved for coming up with the right mix, loosely based on the former’s standup act. Playing a Malibu kid whose dad is jailed for embezzlement, he moves in with his boisterous, more economically challenged relatives in Philadelphia and enrolls in college.
The title thus has various meanings, from the sort-of prison Kevin’s new surroundings represent to the dimensions of his super-sized relations. When he’s chided that his new family members “don’t waste food in this house,” Kevin mutters, “I can see that.”
Although properly intimidated by his Aunt Tina (Arnetia Walker) and Uncle Clarence (Keith David), Kevin has a harder time figuring out his feminist cousin Eartha (Yvette Nicole Brown) and the massive Warren (Faizon Love), a security guard with whom he must share a room.
Moreover, Kevin’s girl-crazy antics impel him to risk his adopted family’s wrath in the first two episodes, lying about a comely coed he hopes to date and then agreeing to be baptized to impress a church-going girl.
The cast is top-notch, but Love in particular yields several hilarious moments, telling Kevin his commitment to God through baptism is “harder to get out (of) than a Suge Knight contract.” And while both early episodes strike similar notes, thus far “The Big House” has the feel of a show where all its regulars can generate laughs, a huge asset for any sitcom.
Even the decision to comically tackle religion, in the second half-hour, feels bold in today’s ultra-sensitive climate, with Kevin questioning how he can have faith given the circumstances that led to his current living situation.
Equally impressive is the fact that “The Big House” manages to convey an urban comedy sensibility that speaks to all audiences, in a manner that’s culturally specific without giving in to the temptation to be overly broad and cartoonish.
It’s premature, of course, to become too excited about a show like this, especially when its commercial prospects appear so questionable. Still, at least based on the initial episodes, W.C. Fields had it wrong. After visiting the generally sorry cadre of comedies that made their debut this season, better Philadelphia than there, any day.