It takes a minute to adjust to the reality of “The Upshaws.” At first glance, the new Netflix comedy appears to look and sound like a multitude of other multi-cam sitcoms about families that crack corny jokes and give each other loving grief. There are plenty of the same strewn about Netflix, from “Fuller House” to Jamie Foxx’s latest slapstick entry, “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!” But “The Upshaws,” created by Regina Hicks and Wanda Sykes, finds a way to even slightly twist the formula perfected by broadcast networks. Like the late “One Day at a Time” reboot before it, “The Upshaws” takes the opportunity to showcase a different kind of family than per sitcom usual, albeit one that should resonate with plenty of people who may not have been able to say the same previously.
The family at the heart of “The Upshaws” hinges on Bennie (executive producer Mike Epps), but not because he’s so reliable. By deliberate contrast, Bennie’s a layabout car mechanic who had his first son, Bernard Jr. (Jermelle Simon), in high school and his second, Kelvin (Diamond Lyons), with another woman (Gabrielle Dennis) when he thought (or at least insists) that he and his wife Regina (Kim Fields) were “on a break.” Bennie and Regina’s daughters Aaliyah (Khali Spraggins) and Maya (Journey Christine) take it all in stride, considering the tangled branches of their family tree to be just another annoyance. (Another character who likely wouldn’t be on the broadcast network equivalent of “The Upshaws” is Page Kennedy’s gentle-ish giant Duck, Bennie’s recently incarcerated friend.)
Having such a particular blended family immediately gives “The Upshaws” a specificity that really works for it, especially when the scripts lean all the way in by letting the characters react to it all individually, too. Bernard Jr. is reluctant to forgive his father for being absent for his childhood; Kelvin wants to bond with his half-siblings but isn’t sure how. And while Aaliyah resists befriending Kelvin, who’s about her same age, both kids inevitably bond over what every sibling inevitably bonds over: their mutual extreme embarrassment of their corny parents.
As far as the corny parents themselves are concerned, Bennie’s a realistic, but undeniably frustrating character to have at the center of a family show like this. He never entirely had to grow up, so when he’s trying or recognizes that he’s messed up, his apologies tend to be self-centered and entirely presumptive of Regina’s forgiveness. To the show’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from that, especially not if Regina’s sarcastic sister Lucretia (Sykes) can help it. She never fails to let Bennie hear the end of his many shortcomings (or pass up an easy punchline about them), and neither does the show.
With Sykes and Hicks at the helm, the women of “The Upshaws” resist the usual clichés — well, with the exception of Dennis’ Tasha, who’s your basic “other woman” nightmare. Otherwise, Sykes takes advantage of every layup joke she gets, while Fields, playing a very different “Regina” than the one she played on “Living Single,” resists letting Regina fall into the all-too-common sitcom trap of becoming a humorless void of a sitcom wife. Bennie might be the one commonality everyone in the family shares, but Regina is the sharp-witted glue that keeps it together.
And no, the “mom who gets things done while the dad gets to mess up and around” conceit isn’t exactly brand new territory for a sitcom to tread. But when a show is this willing to find new ways to make such tropes more grounded and relatable, it’s worth checking out.
“The Upshaws” is now streaming on Netflix.