“White Famous” should be better than it is. The half-hour comedy is led by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Jay Pharoah, a winning impressionist who could almost always guarantee a laugh when he was on the late-night variety show. But “White Famous,” a shallow show about comedian Floyd Mooney (Pharoah) trying to break into the mainstream, accesses few of its star’s talents. Instead, Pharoah’s repulsive, juvenile character is hung up on his own myth of masculinity in his attempt to become “white famous.” And though the show finds moments for sharp commentary about black men in the industry, those are suffocated by scenes in which the presumably male viewer is invited, with Floyd, to stare at a pair of tits.
The show introduces Floyd as a successful comedian, back in Los Angeles after months on tour. He’s separated from his partner Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman), who has finally become fed up with his nonsense; the two share custody of their grade-school age son. Now he’s in an intermediate phase of his career, trying to leverage his present success towards roles in film and television.
But this is hard to glean, because the second scene of the pilot — 54 seconds into the episode — features a naked woman’s a–; she is one of two fully naked women just in the pilot alone. Coupled with how intently the camera stares at Sadie — in the second episode, Floyd watches her undress — “White Famous” has an off-putting, unapologetic desire to titillate the straight male viewer, at the blatant expense of the female characters. At least the first unnamed woman gets to sleep; the second is straddling Jamie Foxx, and continues to perform in reverse cowgirl even when Floyd walks in on them. (Foxx, an executive producer, plays a version of himself.) Foxx introduces her as “just research,” continues to copulate for a few more excruciating seconds, and then disengages, with a pop, dismissing her to the master bedroom.
If “White Famous” seeks only to be sexual wish fulfillment for horny teenagers, then godspeed. But the logline for episode one describes Floyd’s predicament as “an exciting new opportunity presenting itself… but only if he’s willing to bend his principles to further his career.” What that doesn’t tell you is that Floyd’s principles, in this case, are strictly idiotic: He refuses to wear a dress for a role in Foxx’s film. And though this is presented as a struggle around emasculating black men, “White Famous” quickly tacks away from nuance for a much grosser punch line. In a dream sequence, Floyd wears the dress, and then Foxx asks him where his “nut pussy” is. Floyd insists he still has a penis. Foxx pulls the dress back to reveal a shaved, girlish pubic area, and Floyd screams. A profound moral quandary, indeed. This is a show in 2017, with such a fraught relationship towards women that the idea of becoming one sends its protagonist into spasms of horror.
It’s a shame, because the elements of the show that aren’t saturated with penile self-obsession are genuinely interesting. “White Famous” is executive produced by Foxx, who wanted to channel his own experiences in the industry into Pharoah’s character. In the first episode, Floyd is waiting for his BMW at the valet when another patron, Stu (Stephen Tobolowsky), peremptorily hands him his own valet ticket. In the ensuing conversation, which becomes a viral video, Stu trips over himself to not seem racist. But the effect is quite so — an inability to see Floyd as a person beyond his race, coupled with feverish, useless defensiveness. In other scenes, even industry professionals who admire Floyd can’t get over their similar hangups. And in the best storyline from the two episodes screened for critics, a prestige drama producer is so obsessed with Floyd’s blackness that he ambushes Floyd with method acting — in other words, pranks him — with scenarios that exacerbate Floyd’s racial anxieties. It’s a surreal, highly charged series of setups, and the closest to brilliance that “White Famous” gets. But the comedy seems less invested in these scenes than it is in selling Floyd’s life as masturbatory wish-fulfillment. It makes for disappointing viewing.
Pharoah is a better comedian than all of this. The cold open of the pilot is a snippet from a stand-up set that is charmingly intimate. And a small moment in the second episode, “Heat,” lets Pharoah showcase a Denzel Washington impression — which is, of course, dead-on. But these are the few instances where that Floyd offers up a goofy, introspective side to his character. The rest of the time, he’s a stubbornly shallow protagonist in a stubbornly shallow show.