Black people are wishful, and white people are hopeful.
This is the crux of one of Cedric the Entertainer’s best stand-up routines, in which he compares the two races and explains that white people hope for the best while black people anticipate — and even court — confrontation.
Although Cedric told this joke nearly two decades ago in the hit concert movie “The Original Kings of Comedy,” this same broad perspective finds its way onto the maladroit but promising new CBS sitcom “The Neighborhood.” On the show, which premieres Oct. 1, Cedric — who also serves as executive producer — plays Calvin Butler, a middle-aged husband, father and auto mechanic who has to address his feelings on race relations when a young white family moves in next door.
Max Greenfield (“New Girl”) costars as Dave Johnson, the white husband, father and professional conflict mediator who desperately hopes his neighbors will like him — yet says a lot of the wrong things when trying to get to know Calvin and his family. Case in point: When Calvin points out that Johnson is a common last name for black people, Dave pivots and turns it into a punchline. And when Dave awkwardly quips that the Butlers’ surname is synonymous with household servitude (gasp!), Calvin’s wife, Tina (the always charming Tichina Arnold), rapidly changes the course of the conversation to cut off Calvin’s inevitable cutdown.
Calvin later reduces Dave to a walking, talking stereotype who probably finds Rihanna attractive, has “lots of black friends” and wears short shorts while jogging. (His words, not ours.) Calvin’s diatribe allows Cedric to deliver his lines with comedic aplomb and relatability just as he would on a stage. Calvin doesn’t trust Dave’s eagerness, a sentiment he hilariously conveys by doing the “white man voice” — a comedy device pioneered by and perfected by Richard Pryor more than 40 years ago.
That kind of shtick may work for the pilot, but Cedric and the writers will have to tread this path gingerly so the act doesn’t wear thin. The same goes for Greenfield’s agility with playing social blunders, which is best tapped sparingly. Most of the cast is a roundup of actors from recently canceled shows – Greenfield (“New Girl”), Beth Behrs (“2 Broke Girls”), Marcel Spears (“The Mayor”), Sheaun McKinney (“Vice Principals”) — but the loss of those series is this sitcom’s gain. The chemistry is tangible, and Spears is especially funny as Calvin and Tina’s youngest and most progressive son, Marty. Behrs is equally winsome as Gemma, a well-intentioned cultural tourist who loves to throw around the new slang she’s learning from Tina.
But the pilot also includes a groan-inducing misstep in which Dave and Gemma’s son Grover (newcomer Hank Greenspan) points out all the black people he sees as they drive to their new home. “Sweetie, please stop counting black people,” Gemma says. Ugh. Just ugh.
We get it. The Johnsons can’t afford to comfortably segregate themselves, and they don’t know much about black people. The writers should let the Johnsons own their limitations, but they try too hard at times to be edgy and relevant — and it comes across as tone-deaf and as awkward as Dave Johnson himself.
If executed properly, “The Neighborhood” could hold up a powerful cultural mirror in the vein of Pryor and Norman Lear. But it’s not quite there yet. Thankfully, the last two minutes of the pilot capitalize on the program’s potential by removing the jokes and letting Dave and McKinney’s character, Malcolm, talk candidly about race in an authentic way. It’s only that authenticity that will make viewers want to stay in this “Neighborhood.”
Comedy: 30 mins. (Pilot watched for review.) Premieres Monday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
Cast: Cedric the Entertainer, Max Greenfield, Tichina Arnold, Beth Behrs, Sheaun McKinney, Marcel Spears and Hank Greenspan.
Executive producers: Jim Reynolds, Aaron Kaplan, Dana Honor, Wendi Trilling, Cedric the Entertainer and Eric Rhone.