‘Everybody Hates Chris:’ Underrated treasure

BET these days is only good for one thing (not that it has ever really been good at anything): its reruns of Everybody Hates Chris, one of the most underrated shows once on television and a kind of mini-revolutionary take on the black sitcom.

It sounded like a horrible idea at first, Chris Rock, edgy stand-up comic, making a sitcom about growing up in 1980s Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

But the dude knew what he was doing. The single camera sitcom, starring Tyler Williams, as the 13-year-old Chris incarnation and Terry Crews, the fantastic Tichnia Arnold, Tequan Richmond and Imani Hakim as father, mother, younger brother and younger sister respectively, debuted to strong reviews and ratings.

It’s easy to understand why. Buffered by the adult Rock’s wry commentary, Everybody Hates Chris was a touching but not saccharine portrait of family in a working class black neighborhood. It had a Scrubs-like affinity for the eccentric.

Everybody was crazy from Mr. Omar (Ernest Lee Thomas), the Rocks’ next door funeral director with a thing for comely widows, to Risky, an inept petty thief to Vanessa, Mrs. Rock’s gossipy friend and hair salon owner. And that’s just three of them– check out this list of characters–for only four seasons, they sure packed a lot of them in. It may have been filmed on a sound stage in California, but the show benefited from this rotating cast of characters, crafting an alternative ’80s Brooklyn as fresh and developed as scenic Pawnee, Indiana.

The Rock family was  especially well-drawn out, making it one of the stronger family sitcoms to emerge in the mid 2000s. There was Julius, the patriarch who works two jobs and loves The Young and the Restless. He’s notoriously stingy, in the pilot episode he warns the family that there is “49 cents of spilled milk dripping off my table.” His stinginess oddly works well with Rhochelle’s (the mom) need to keep up appearances. As played by Tichina Arnold, Rhochelle narrowly avoids the caricatural bossy black mother; everything, we sense, she does out of a love for her family. Except for the time when she makes the whole family eat fish and fruit juice so she can fit into a pair of jeans that turn out to be her son’s. “$98 of food gone, I know,” she says when Julius finds her eating a chicken sandwich in the bathtub.

Young Chris is the heart of the show, the barometer of normal. He’s wonderfully, adorably mediocre, in a comedy world that often thrives on abnormality. He’s an average student attending an all-white school far away, his younger brother Drew is taller than him and better looking. In a storyline straight out of A Separate Peace (yay, high school English) he accidentally on purpose breaks Drew’s hand and discovers that Drew can still do more with his one hand than Chris can do with two. It’s a bizarre story, featuring plenty of slapstick, but it gets at the competitiveness and feelings of inadequacy that can often plague even the closest of siblings.

More importantly, Everbody Hates Chris, reintroduced an old idea, that of the working-class black family. They were all the rage in the ’70s, with Sanford & Son, Good Times, and (in a way) The Jeffersons. The Cosby Show came and changed all of that, introducing what some considered a fantasy– the highly educated, well-off black family, which later gave way to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and other shows devoted to middle and upper class black life. Everybody Hates Chris was a return to the pre-Cosby era but unlike Good Times, which often relied on racial stereotypes, Everybody Hates Chris, offered a rich, textured perspective, one that didn’t deny the existence of widespread poverty and crime in Bed Stuy, but didn’t wallow in it either.

Unfortunately, Everybody Hates Chris never seemed to quite catch on with a devoted populace. Although it started off well-reviewed and highly rated, the death of UPN coupled with the birth of the CW doomed the show to Friday nights–when anyone with a social life is doing something other than watching TV.

It’s a shame. The end of Everybody Hates Chris essentially signaled the end of any decent black sitcoms. The late 2000s are Tyler Perry’s domain now, with some lackluster help from BET’s own original programming.

As noted in this Newsweek piece (nothing revelatory, Allison Samuels is one of those journalists who manages to write about things that interest me in the most uninteresting way possible, and naturally the comments are ignorant), we seem to be moving backwards.

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