If the Good Lord really does help those who help themselves, TV Land has likely done just that with “The Soul Man.” After a string of undistinguished comedies since “Hot in Cleveland,” this vehicle for star/co-creator Cedric the Entertainer shrewdly taps into the frothy mix of broad comedy and religion that has made Tyler Perry very, very rich — and Cedric can carry the show without even needing to wear women’s clothes. High art it’s not, but the series should deliver on a level that won’t require passing the plate on its behalf.
Getting ample mileage from its title, “The Soul Man” coyly refers to the protagonist’s two careers. Cedric’s Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine was a successful R&B singer (glimpses of his videos have an amusing Barry White vibe), but he’s shed that life to become a minister at the St. Louis church once presided over by his father, Barton (John Beasley).
Boyce has a loving if outspoken wife, Lolli (Niecy Nash, mercifully bringing her shtick down a notch), and teenage daughter (Jazz Raycole) who still covets all the pampered privilege of dad’s showbiz career.
While the two previewed episodes (Cedric co-created and wrote the pilot with Suzanne Martin) both play pretty broadly — including Boyce bribing church ladies to patronize Lolli’s salon in the premiere — there’s also a warm spiritual side, which involves Boyce tending to his flock.
The second installment, moreover, is markedly better than the first, largely because it centers on Boyce grappling with his dad, who isn’t exactly taking to retirement. If there’s a heart to the show, it resides in that squabbling but loving relationship, with pop at one point colorfully grumbling that Boyce’s roundabout driving route is “like going up a pig’s ass to get a bacon sandwich.”
Even with the obvious calculation behind “Soul Man’s” commercial ingredients, the show has an unpretentiousness about it, and ought to tap into a couple of underserved markets — namely, African-Americans and the religious faithful (two constituencies with more than a little overlap) who see cable TV as a steaming cauldron of smut.
Of course, that’s not to say the series is above dabbling in naughtiness, with Boyce prepping for an afternoon romp with the missus by grabbing whipped cream, looking skyward and saying, “God, you’re going to hear your name quite a bit.”
Admittedly, “Soul Man” doesn’t do much more than preach to the choir, but the beauty of cable is that’s enough. And if the ratings work as expected, there won’t be anything mysterious about its ways.