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All of Us

Director: Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Betsy Borns
Creator: Betsy Borns
Cast: Duane Martin, Elise Neal, LisaRaye, Khamani Griffin
Regular airtime: Tuesdays 8:30pm ET

(UPN)

EVE
Regular airtime: Mondays 8:30pm ET (UPN)
Creator/writer: Meg DeLoatch
Cast: Eve, Jason George, Ali Landry, Natalie Desselle-Reid, Brian Hooks, Sean Maguire


by Cynthia Fuchs
PopMatters Film and TV Editor

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Manning Up


We got to do like white people do in Hollywood, we got to give each other jobs.
—Will Smith, Primetime Monday (21 September 2003)


I do what I feel like doing. If I want to wear a sweatsuit in a picture, I will. If I want to wear a halter-top and a miniskirt, it’s not a huge deal.
—Eve, Index (Sep/Oct 2003)


Robert (Duane Martin) is Mr. L.A. That is, he hosts a local talk show, for which he smiles a lot and chats up show business types. Though he frets, on UPN’s All of Us, that maybe he’s not doing anything “different,” it’s a decent gig and, as his girlfriend Tia (Elise Neal) declares, “You’re black and you’re on tv: that’s different enough.”


Sad but true, 13 years after The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air first hit television, black tv “personalities” remain unusual enough that they seem “different,” especially on networks other than the WB and UPN. Will Smith, of course, recalls those good old breakthrough days, when he and Jazzy Jeff were crossing over from hip-hop to mainstream and back again, turning a nice profit off the observation that “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”


These days, hip-hop and tv seem rather like they were made for each other, what with their many interconnections in near every commercial for fast food, soda, and sporting gear, not to mention any number of tv shows, from dramas to sitcoms, that use hip-hop to signify everything from sophistication to club culture, comedy to coolness. So cozy is the linkage now that hiphop artists are prominent among those who do, in fact, show up on tv. Thanks to Will SmIth, LL Cool J, and Queen Latifah, hip-hop is now not merely a possible route to tv stardom, but a likely one. (And think what that means—Chingy or 50 Cent coming soon to a primetime slot near you.)


This fall, UPN has scheduled two new hip-hop-ish sitcoms, one, All of Us, based loosely on the experiences of Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and the other, Eve, named for, starring, executive produced by, and based loosely on the fashion aspirations of erstwhile “pit bull in a skirt,” Eve Jihan Jeffers (she has a new line, Fetish, set to hit runways next fall). Both trade on their headliners’ famous likeability, and both serve up the same sort of sitcommy foolishness: romantic tensions, petty competitions, banal jealousies, and enough general good-heartedness to resolve all issues by the end of the weekly 30 minutes. More fun, they also feature famous guest stars, with some—like Eve’s fellow Ruff Ryder DMX on Eve—turning in damn funny performances.


All of Us is built on the Smiths’ unusual familial arrangement, apparently as this evolved during Will’s early courtship of Jada, while they were still figuring out how to maintain a healthy relationship with his ex, with whom he has a son, Tre (who has spent his own time in front of the camera with daddy, notably for the “Two of Us” video). Here the ex is Neesee (LisaRaye) and the son is five-year-old Bobby (Khamani Griffin). She’s aggressive and righteous; he’s adorable and precocious.


Tia, meanwhile, has the Jada part, so she’s alternately patient and catty, endearing and tetchy. She’s doing her best to love her man and his child, and tolerate Neesee, who can’t seem to stop herself from coming by whenever she wants, expecting full access to the house (and furniture) she not so long ago shared with Robert. When Neesee reveals, “I always loved this couch,” Tia immediately imagines her reasons for loving it. And when Robert balks at signing the divorce papers, Tia worries, especially when Neesee drops “the baby bomb,” as her friends at work (kindergarten) call it. At home, she wonders out loud what’s going on in his head; his response is as cute as anything Fresh Will would have said: “You know there ain’t nothing going on up there!”


Three weeks into the first season, the plots are already wearing a little thin, even if Robert has agreed to buy new furniture. The women repeatedly squabble or compete over who gets to make cupcakes for Bobby’s class or who gets to hang out with Bobby’s teacher, also supposedly Tia’s best friend, at the Salon Saloon (where you can get matching manicures and a round of Cosmopolitans). They have to set up boundaries, and once that’s done, it surely would be healthy and refreshing if the comedy takes up other, more broad-ranging topics.


The boys’ side of the arrangement—for there must a boys’ and a girls’ side, as per sitcom formula—is as predictable, focusing most often on masculinity anxieties. At work, Robert’s producer, Dirk (Tony Rock), tends to be all over him about submitting to the ladies’ demands. “I know you’re not going pink on me,” he sputters. “You better man up!” When Robert doesn’t exactly man up, Dirk gives him more advice: “Life’s a burning hoop, bro. And you gotta jump through it or it’s gonna burn your ass.” Say what?


On occasion, it appears that the boys take time off from Robert’s domestic concerns to put on their show, at which point Dirk proclaims that he does, indeed, “produce!” To publicize an upcoming interview with Beyoncé Herself, Dirk puts together a photo of Robert and himself (standing in for the bootylicious star), looking all gropey and kissy: this is too much exposure of the masculinity anxiety issues, and so Robert passes judgment: “I think you’re stupidlicious.” Thank goodness that Beyoncé the Wise arrives to clarify for the two of them just how gender works with sex: as she “flips” the interview (observing that Robert’s questions are just too tired, from “Who makes your outfits?” to the status of hip-hop in mainstream culture), getting him to own his self-centeredness and inattention to Tia. Thank you Ms. Knowles. Next?


Eve offers another (but still close to the same) take on male-female and intrasex relations. She plays Shelly, a single fashion designer, working for a Miami bridal design firm, eager to find a mate. Very eager. She works and parties with single former model Rita (Ali Landry) and married, mostly grounded Janie (Natalie Desselle-Reid)—they seem to spend most of their time at a Miami nightclub owned by a pleasant British busybody named Donovan (Sean Maguire). Friends with the show’s boys, he’s also willing to dish with the girls.


During the premiere episode, the girls gather at Donovan’s club to scope available men. One ting leads to another and in the corniest of sitcom traditions, Shelly finds her expensive dress entangled in a fly zipper belonging to J.T. (Jason George, who also appeared with Eve in Barbershop): call it the major meet cute, which makes it slightly less cute. The relationship has evolved over the past few weeks, to the point that they’ve snooped on each other (she went through his wallet, and he went high-tech, using the skills of his IRS auditor friend Nick (Brian Hooks) to check her credit record and shopping habits. As Nick explains, by way of condoning the snooping, “I’ve been known to go through a pocketbook or two myself.” (There’s a pattern here, with regard to the best buddies in these shows.)


Somehow, the couple gets get through this exchange of distrust, leaving enough time that Nick (who plays the Dirk role, that is, the best male friend who worries about performing his manhood) goes to a tattoo parlor, to be inked by none other than DMX. “Is this gonna hurt?” asks Nick. “Yeah,” growls DMX, his odiously whirring needle at the ready. Nick is repeatedly goosy, such that at last DMX can stand it no longer: “Get this bitch outta here!” Nick whimpers, “Um, thanks dawg!” and scoots. Dog humor: who knew how droll it might be?


That this ostensible distraction provides livelier comedy than the Shelly-J.T. plot isn’t surprising (as everyone knows, supporting players often steal sitcom scenes, if not whole series), but it does underline the general tedium of the standard girl-boy jokes. Eve and George are appealing and charismatic performers, but their characters’ familiar heterosexual routines—ranging from desirous to defensive, feebly reckless to vaguely rebellious—need definite tweaking.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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