Rock in a hard place

everybody-hates-chris

Family-oriented sitcoms generally suck. They’re heavy on the syrupy sentiments, full of impossibly good-looking people who begin to irritate you well before the first ad break and, worst of all for a comedy, they’re generally not funny. And no amount of canned laughter is going to convince us otherwise. So when something good does come along, it stands out like a shining beacon in a dead sea of ‘will-this do?’ mediocrity – The Simpsons, Family Guy, Malcolm In The Middle, Arrested Development and now, it seems, Everybody Hates Chris.

Inspired by his tough childhood experiences, comedian Chris Rock is the narrator for the story of his life as a teenager growing up in New York. The young Chris (played by Tyler James Williams) is uprooted to a new neighbourhood and has to take a bus to a predominantly white middle school two hours away by his strict, hard-working parents – so he could receive ‘not a Harvard-type education, just a not-sticking-up a- liquor-store-type education.’ There, he struggles to find his place in life’s pecking order while keeping his siblings in line at home and surmounting the challenges of junior high.

Period sitcoms with a narrator reminiscing are nothing new of course, but Everybody Hates Chris has updated and given some much needed edge to the formula. While the vastly underrated Oliver Beene used the setting of ’50s New York and The Wonder Years was based on the changing times of the late ’60s and early ’70s, so this shows life growing up in a black neighbourhood in 1980s Brooklyn. However, it’s the anti-Cosby in terms of how the comedy is pitched and for that we can rejoice.

Shot on a single camera, in the same way that has worked so well for Arrested Development, it has a docu-comedy feel and an edge that prevents the premise becoming too glossy. In the opening episode, it covers racism, bullying, rock cocaine, welfare, the inequities in NYC’s public school system and school shootings: ‘Much like rock n’ roll, school shootings were also invented by blacks and stolen by white men.’

Fans of Rock will have recognised that line from one of his stand-up videos and this TV series is the perfect bridge for his stage routine to be shaped into something more visual and accessible to a television audience. Rock is an accomplished stand-up comic, but his move to the big screen saw him all too often cast in roles that employ his energy and anger yet leave him with little to actually say. On the small screen, however, he works perfectly with a script that reflects the humour and social issues of his stand-up act.

It’s laugh out loud funny, yet touching and based in family values that don’t lower themselves to the sickly saccharine levels that ruin so many promising comedies. The first episode ends with young Chris lying awake in bed: ‘My father wasn’t the type to say, “I love you.” He was one of four fathers on the block. “I’ll see you in the morning” meant he was coming home. Coming home was his way of saying, “I love you”.’ Everybody Hates Chris is a gem and we strongly recommend you tune in.

For Time Out magazine – click here for original PDF – Everybody Hates Chris

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