There is no way to ignore Chris Rock -- irate man-boy, the voice a squall of gleeful outrage, the eyes bugging out in disbelief. He's so put-upon, and so happily so, that he just has to share all of it: Can you believe this?
Unlike comics who try to draw audiences into their private worlds, Rock drags us outside to look at all the freaky, nasty behavior going on right there in the open. Garden-variety stupidity, bloated egos at the Oscars, the desperate illogic of crack addicts, the shopping mall the white people go to and the one they don't -- all of it the subject of Rock's hyperthyroidic delivery, that madman shout. Eyebrows pumping, he makes people co-conspirators in mocking themselves; if people didn't laugh so hard at hearing their follies punctured with such naughty accuracy, he'd probably get punched in the face.
Rock has transferred his ripping commentary to his new show, Everybody Hates Chris, which airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on UPN. A quasi-account of his life as a teenager, Chris has been hailed as the savior of the sitcom. It's easy to see why: The show deftly synthesizes the best of old and new family-sitcom forms. Although he's gotten rid of the laugh track and cornball situation setups, Rock has grounded his show in old-school comedic sweetness -- turmoil leads toward resolution. But he's also borrowed some of the satiric dysfunction from FOX-style sitcoms like The Simpsons and Arrested Development. Unlike those shows, however, he doesn't turn that edge so much on his family but on money struggles and racial discrimination [i made some minor cuts] -- a staggering and extremely welcome sight for TV.
The show sizzles with the comedian's trademark sly canniness; it's narrated by the adult Rock, making it something of a hardboiled Wonder Years. When the series opens, Rock's ferocious but loving mother (played by Tichina Arnold) has just moved the family from the projects to Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, unaware that the area is about to fall prey to an '80s-era crack epidemic. As they pull up in their truck, she spots some teens tagging a building with spray paint. She draws herself up and warns her children that if she says them doing that, “I'ma put my foot so far up your behind you'll have toes for teeth. Get inside.”
“That's my mother, Rochelle,” the adult Chris interjects. “She had 100 recipes for whuppin' ass.”
While Rochelle speaks in furious italics, Chris's father, Julius (Terry Crews), goes for the full-on ALL CAPS bellow. The hardworking man toils away at several jobs; he doesn't have time for wasted food or squandered electricity, especially because he can calculate the value of everything down to the last penny. “That's 49 cent of SPILLED MILK drippin' ALL OVER my table,” he declares. “Somebody gonna DRINK that milk.”
Chris, his effortlessly smooth younger brother (Tequan Richmond), and a bratty daddy's girl (Imani Hakim) round out the family. As played by the wonderful Tyler James Williams, Chris has a engaging combination of knowing self-possession and adolescent awkwardness. The “emergency adult” of the family when his parents are at work, Chris is also the only one of the kids who goes to school outside of the neighborhood (his mother calls the local junior high a “hoodlum factory”). So he takes two buses to “Corleone Junior High” every day, which scarcely seems any better; the former principal was hauled out for some shady crime, as seen in flashback, The Police's Lolita-esque “Don't Stand So Close to Me” churning on the soundtrack.
Chris soon runs afoul of the school's mini-boss, a fat little thug named Joey Caruso (Travis T. Flory), who bricks him with the N-word and then later challenges him to a fight. Chris happily accepts because, as he tells his new, nerdy, and similarly ass-kicked friend Greg (Vincent Martella), school fights always get broken up within a minute. But when a white cop walks by the brawl later without breaking it up, the fight turns into a 30-minute beatdown, “Ebony and Ivory” crooning over the soundtrack as Chris gets stomped and then hightails it for the bus, screaming, “Wait! WAIT!”
This is the pilot's dramatic centerpiece, and its most brutally funny appraisal of racism. It also makes clear the source of some of the power of the adult Rock's work. As the only black kid in his junior high, and the most upwardly mobile kid in his “transitional” neighborhood, he was always on the outside, observing, gathering material, honing his jokes. Growing up on the border of two worlds enabled Rock to make fun of both realms without someone knocking his teeth out. His outsider status also seems to have given him a masterful sense of the outsized and the absurd, for what are the inequities of race and class other than nonsensical, crazy prejudice and disproportional suffering and reward?
Everybody Hates Chris has quieter, but no less striking, appraisals of the societal forces that keep the family teetering on the edge. Chris' mother creates an elaborate debt system to keep the household from backsliding into the projects. As she tells her husband, “I run this house like they run the country: on a deficit.” She's continually on edge, trying to keep all the pieces together, aware that the smallest misstep -- a man deprived of his chicken dinner who turns irritable at work, for example -- could have profound consequences on the family's welfare. She hisses, she flares, Julius hollers back in righteous indignation, but soon enough they make up and recognize the ways in which both fight for the family. It's a novel thing for a sitcom these days, a break from the formula of schlumpy dad, saintly mom. These are adults who are adults, who love and try to protect each other and their children from harm.
Chris occasionally veers into caricature to portray the parents, but that's hopefully something the series will smooth out as it goes along. Viewers flocked to the show in droves for its premiere -- a wonderful and unexpected surprise, as the show goes up against the outrageously popular (and super-white) The O.C. in the same time slot. Here's hoping that audiences will continue to follow Chris. It's a fascinating, demented, loving portrait of the comic as a young man.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.