Since winning an Academy Award back in 1990 for Ghost, Whoopi Goldberg has remained one of Hollywood’s most talented and tireless performers. In between her occasional gig hosting the Oscars, she continues to work in features, while also supplying her voice for animated characters and making numerous television appearances, including her recent stint in the center square on The New Hollywood Squares, which she also executive produced.
Goldberg is now trying her hand at a situation comedy, her first since her role in the short-lived 1990 TV version of the 1988 independent feature film, Baghdad Cafe. This time around, she’s starring in a show tailor-made for her comedic talents that also features a fresh and very funny ensemble cast. More importantly, Whoopi is not another one of those domestic comedies about a suburban family headed by a dad who is a lovable boob. It is, instead, intelligent and topical, infused with politically oriented humor reminiscent of such 1970s Norman Lear sitcoms as All in the Family and Maude.
Goldberg stars as Mavis Rae, a one-hit-wonder singer who is now the proprietor of a boutique Manhattan hotel. Like John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers and Newhart, most of the action is set in the hotel lobby, which allows for an endless stream of assorted guests. Mavis’ caustic, frazzled, and impulsive personality is not exactly ideal for the hotel business. She is introduced in the pilot episode, standing behind the hotel desk and smoking a cigarette. When a guest reminds her there’s “no smoking,” she only pretends to put it out. “Secondhand smoke kills,” he scolds. “So do I, baby. Move on,” she barks.
Adding to Mavis’ stress level is her handyman, Nasim (Omid Djalili), a frustrated Iranian immigrant who spends most of his work day explaining that he’s not Arab, but Persian. Besides the fact you can count the number of Iranian characters on television on one finger (or for that matter, any TV character who hails from that part of the planet), Djalili is a welcome addition to primetime, with the comic timing and delivery of a veteran.
Like Goldberg, he’s an award-winning standup comedian, best known for performing in clubs and in one-man shows (for instance, Short Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son) that focus on his ethnic identity. Djalili, who was born in Iran and now hails from Britain, has also become a familiar face on British television and has had small roles in The Mummy (1999), The World is Not Enough (1999), Gladiator (2000), and the upcoming Modigliani (2004), in which he portrays Pablo Picasso.
In light of the tragic events of September 11 and increasing anti-Arab bias in the U.S., the inclusion of the Iranian character is nothing less than groundbreaking. His pairing with Goldberg, not one to hold back when it comes to airing her political views (in one scene, Mavis takes aim at Bush for mispronouncing “nuclear” as “nucular”) provides ample room for pointed jokes about race and ethnic stereotypes.
Still, by the end of the first half-hour, Nasim’s refrain—“I’m Persian, not Arab”—was already wearing thin. In this episode, Whoopi exploits Nasim’s hostility toward those who mistake him as an Arab in order to return a big-screen TV she bought but can’t afford. While the set-up is funny, it ends abruptly, with an INS official deciding whether he should send Nasim home over his angry display at the store. Surprisingly, Mavis has no remorse over getting her friend in potentially dire trouble, though the choppy editing makes you wonder if perhaps a moment or two (perhaps an exchange between Mavis and Nasim) was cut.
Whoopi‘s potential for addressing social and political issues is expanded by two more supporting characters. In the pilot, Mavis’ conservative, anal-retentive brother, Courtney (Wren T. Brown), a former Enron lawyer who is now broke and unemployed, ends up moving into the hotel and starting his own practice. The brother and sister are opposites, in that Oscar-and-Felix sort of way: he even refers to Bush as “his President.”
Even worse than having your conservative brother move in is meeting his new, much younger girlfriend, Rita (Elizabeth Regen), who is white but walks and talks like a “sister.” Although her appearances in the pilot are brief, a white girl who performs “blackness,” is the perfect target for Whoopi. On meeting Rita, Mavis looks like she’s having a close encounter with alien. Best of all, Regen is a terrific performer, able to keep up with Goldberg.
With its talented cast and comic exchanges that push beyond the white-picket-fenced-world of most current sitcoms, Whoopi shows great promise. It may even inspire more shows like it, as antidote to the doses of banal reality that TV sitcoms are content to offer us in these uber-patriotic times.