Kenan Thompson’s been on television for the better part of three decades. His broad smile and enthusiastic delivery immediately broke him out from the crowded cast of Nickelodeon’s “All That” years before he did the same on “Saturday Night Live,” the adult inspiration for the show that first made clear he was a star. Almost 20 seasons of “SNL” later, Thompson is striking out on his own to headline the first show that bears his name since “Kenan and Kel,” the slapstick 1996 sitcom in which he played, to use a fitting reference from the same era, the Brain to Kel Mitchell’s Pinky. Twenty-five years later, Thompson is an established veteran of the medium and one of its most immediately recognizable faces. What does it look like for him to have his own show now?
As per the first episode of “Kenan,” premiering February 16 on NBC, it looks like a smart embrace of Thompson’s strengths as a performer, plus a bittersweet streak of tenderness that could make the show stand out should it decide to lean in.
Thompson plays Kenan, a recently widowed father of two who hosts a sunny morning show called “Wake Up with Kenan” (tagline: “I don’t care who you sleep with as long as you ‘Wake Up With Kenan’!”). In the year since his wife Cori (Niccole Thurman) died, Kenan’s tried as hard as he can to deny the reality of how much her loss hurts, a stance wholeheartedly embraced by Cori’s father Rick (Don Johnson). Fleshing out the cast are Kimrie Lewis as Kenan’s concerned head producer, Taylor Louderman as his ratings-obsessed co-anchor Tami, Fortune Feimster as “Pam on Sports,” and Thompson’s “SNL” co-star Chris Redd as his eccentric brother.
Everyone does the jobs assigned to them in the pilot, which is about as much as you can ask, given that the cast is still figuring out its strongest dynamics. Otherwise, and unsurprisingly, it’s Thompson who acts as the show’s anchor and glue. Making him the face of a chipper morning show is a sharp choice, as it gives Thompson plenty of room to indulge his hammier comedy instincts. A scene in which Kenan verbally trips all over himself trying to tell a relatable story about his wife’s childbirth experiences, only to offend every shade of mother and also somehow Beyoncé, wouldn’t work unless it had someone like Thompson guiding it to the ultimate punchline of his outsized humiliation. There are enough moments in the first episode, however, that make it feel like “Kenan” was originally meant to be a multi-cam sitcom; the rhythms of the jokes make it all too easy to imagine that the cast is pausing for audible laughter that never comes.
If Kenan’s workplace might be the setting for most of the show’s most exaggerated shenanigans, it’s his home life that immediately gives the series a bit more of an immediate personality. The pilot’s biggest laugh, for instance, comes at the very end of the episode when Kenan sits his daughters (Dani and Dannah Lane) down to watch a blooper reel of him and their mother on the set of the sitcom where they met, in which Cori improbably played his mother. Their inability to keep the onscreen relationship platonic is as disturbing as it is undeniably hilarious. Plus, the fact of Cori actually showing up in this clip, therefore making her more of a character than an offscreen complication for Kenan and his family to work through, is promising in and of itself. (Thurman is also immediately very funny, so I hope she returns!)
But it’s the cold open that stuck with me beyond the scope of the final credits. In introducing Kenan, the series shows him sneaking out of the bed where he and his daughters had all fallen asleep together so he can lay out their outfits for the day. Though it’s very cute to watch Kenan get increasingly frustrated over figuring out which tiny skirts go with which tiny shirts, it’s downright lovely when he finally hits on a combination he likes and briefly presses his hands to his heart. His thrill and relief at getting through this first step of the day, one he would’ve taken with their mother just a year earlier, makes for a surprisingly potent scene that Thompson has no problem selling. The more the show can incorporate and balance these moments with the sillier ones, the more quickly “Kenan” will find a groove all its own.
“Kenan” premieres Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC