United Paramount Network, still stinging from the failure of its “Star Trek” franchise, has been struggling to find its identity. For years now, the network has been content to set up a few nights of low-rated “urban” sitcoms and leave the rest of the week to the sharks. This season, however, finds the network on the verge of what could be its biggest breakout hit. The amusingly titled “Everybody Hates Chris” draws on the comedic star power of Chris Rock to form the backbone of a solid sitcom property.
UPN must have some serious faith in the show, having scheduled it on Thursday nights opposite such stiff competition as ABC's “Alias,” CBS' “Survivor,” NBC's “Joey,” FOX's “The O.C.” and The WB's “Smallville.” Between those five shows, it would seem that all demographics are present and accounted for. But UPN seems to think there's room for improvement.
On the surface, “Everybody Hates Chris” looks like it fits in easily with UPN's other Afro-centric sitcoms “Eve,” “Cuts,” “Girlfriends,” “One on One” and “All of Us.” But the show has a greater potential than any of those to reach a wide audience. For starters, Rock's fame doesn't hurt. But that would only lure a few curious viewers to start with. The series would eventually need to stand on its own two feet, and--happy to report--it does.
The show is narrated by Rock and relates the comedian's troubled youth growing up in early '80s-era Brooklyn. “Sesame Street” graduate Tyler James Williams plays the 11-year-old Rock with just the right amount of youthful paranoia and hard-luck humor. Though saddled with a tough mom (“Martin”'s Tichina Arnold) and a skinflint dad (The Longest Yard's Terry Crews), most of young Chris' conflicts seem to arise from school. Bussed to an all-white school by his overprotective parents, Chris finds it hard to fit in. Keep in mind, this is years before Rock's trademark wit had developed, and the few “yo mama” jokes he can muster only seem to get him deeper in trouble with bullies and teachers. Still, he finds friendship with a few nerdy compatriots, develops a crush on a neighbor girl and does daily battle with his two siblings.
The show is surprisingly warmhearted (like a grittier version of “Wonder Years”) and doesn't wallow much in cheap period detail (“That '70s Show,” I'm looking at you). So far, the situations (fighting bullies, crushing on neighbor girls) are standard issue. Still, even in the pilot episode (directed by Houseparty helmer Reginald Hudlin), the show demonstrated it had enough on the ball to merit further attention. (Hard to believe this is the same network that gave us such hallmarks of African-American culture as “Homeboys in Outer Space” and “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.”)
In time, as it grows into its own voice, there's no reason not to believe “Everybody Hates Chris” will be the among the least prophetic title on TV.