It's hard to believe it has taken this long for BET to produce an original scripted comedy. Across TV, we're lucky to find any show that deals with race consistently - even backhandedly, as did ABC's short-lived and largely underappreciated sitcom "Cavemen." So why should a network aimed at black audiences abdicate sharp, smart commentary about race to the likes of Comedy Central and (occasionally) the CW?
"Somebodies," the new BET sitcom that premieres tonight at 10:30, doesn't tiptoe around the subject, which is what makes the show so honest and so funny. Based on the movie of the same name, which made a splash at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, it centers on Scottie, a perpetual college student in a Southern university town.
As played by Hadjii, the one-named impresario who wrote and directed both the series and the film, Scottie is a deadpan guide to life - what Larry David might be if he were gentle, Southern, and black. He knows he needs to focus, but he spends his time bemusedly watching the characters around him, observant to the point of paralysis.
In tonight's premiere, Scottie sits back and takes it, brow furrowed, when his college guidance counselor converts a standard lecture about the need to choose a major into a free-flowing rant about the state of some black men. "You sittin' up in my house, eatin' my groceries, waiting on your record deal to come through!" she yells.
Everyone in his world seems a walking piece of social commentary, which becomes a joke in itself: He walks out of her office and, in quick succession, strides past a cheerful drug dealer, a beggar, and a strange kid who looks up plaintively and says, "Daddy?" He ends with a fast-talking man named Epitome who runs a campus black group called "Blacks on Campus Encouraging Racial Supremacy" (acronym: BONCERS).
This show has room for it all, alternately skewering fiery preachers, ne'er-do-well friends, and white waitresses who treat black groups differently from white ones. It gently explores the ins and outs of intraracial tension. "It's like the less money you have, the louder you have to talk," Scottie gripes at one point about a pair of trashy neighbors, and one of his friends offers a hilarious extended explanation.
But this is also the sort of universal, guy's-guy story that Judd Apatow and his repertory group might spin out: the tale of another hapless dude, figuring out his place in the world. The characters we get to know in depth are vivid, too, from Scottie's loud, warm Southern family to his supportive ex-girlfriend Diva (Kaira Akita), who has pretensions of being Diddy's interior decorator.
"Somebodies" is filmed on location in Athens, Ga., and it shows; everything feels brighter and more authentic here than it might on an overlit Hollywood set. Stylistically, this show doesn't break new ground: It's a single-camera comedy that comes close, at times, to feeling like a live-action cartoon. It's not as hilariously cutting as "Chappelle's Show" used to be. But the tone is entertaining, and the format fits. The real world is a conflicted place, but a funny one, too, and Hadjii serves as a winning guide.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.