[16 September 2003]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Regular airtime: Saturdays 8:30pm ET (Nickelodeon)
Producers: Larry Sugar, Gary Stephenson
Cast: Lil’ Romeo, Master P, Erica O’Keith, Victoria Jackson, Zachary Isaiah Williams, Noel Callahan, Brittney Wilson
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You got mail, give it to the haters.
Y’all get fame, we get paper.
Rome be Kobe, I be Shaq.
Come back and get double-platinum back to back.
—Master P, “Two Way”
Fathers and sons. Whether at odds or in accord, they provide endless narrative fodder, a long tradition of conflict and competition, shared experience and dialogue. They’ve inspired countless oral histories, autobiographies, novels, and movies. And lots of sitcoms.
The new fall season offers up still more stories of fathers and sons, in particular, All About the Andersons, starring Anthony Anderson and John Amos, and Romeo!, with Lil’ Romeo and his real life dad, Master P. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given their familial focus, the dynamics in these series are strikingly similar: both described as “semi-autobiographical,” they feature sons who are ambitious and talented, fathers with responsibilities and resentments; the sons make trouble, the fathers react. And so on. The obvious difference posed by both shows, compared to standard network sitcom fare, is their focus on black families (even as both are plainly taking a cue from the success of the semi-autobiographical Bernie Mac Show). The obvious question is, how does this focus translate to situation and comedy?
All About the Andersons doubles the father-son stakes with two sets: at the center is Anthony Anderson (played by the charismatic Anderson), a suddenly single father of adorable eight-year-old Tuga (Damani Roberts). As the series begins, they’ve just moved from New York City back to L.A., in order to live with his parents, Joe (Amos) and Flo (Roz Ryan). This arrangement saves on rent, of course, and puts little Tuga—understandably upset after his mama walked out, or, as Anthony has told him, gone on vacation to Disneyland—in the welcoming arms of his doting grandma and Pop Pop.
Joe’s happy enough to see the child, but hardly thrilled to see his 30-year-old son, calling Anthony “a 250-pound boomerang.” The problem is that Anthony is jobless; perhaps worse, he’s an aspiring actor. Old-school Joe would prefer that he get a real job, like his: he’s got his own barbershop, where Flo works the other side as a salon, affording a supposedly communal setting like the Ice Cube movies (with the customers here serving as on-set audience, laughing or at least smiling on cue). During the premiere episode, Anthony resists his father’s suggestion that he work at the shop, instead landing a part in a hemorrhoid cream commercial (for his fine line reading: “I’m on fire down there!”). When this falls through, Anthony agrees to work two days a week in the shop while still pursuing his “dream” on his days off.
Back at the house, Anthony ends up sleeping in the garage, as his parents have rented out his room, to a medical student, Lydia (Aimee Garcia, last seen in Greetings From Tucson, and grating here). If the first two episodes are any indication, Lydia will be providing the “multi” in series’ claim to “multi-ethnic” comedy. She and Anthony tend to meet up in the kitchen, where they role-play for one another’s upcoming difficulties. So, when she’s worried that she won’t be able to deal honestly with a terminal patient, Anthony tries to help her with her “stage fright” by pretending he’s “Mrs. Ortega” (“Okay,” he commands, “Tell me I’m dying!”), while wearing his mom’s red heels, a deal he’s made with her—she pays him for breaking in his shoes and he gives you the cutesy visual joke of Anthony Anderson in heels.
In the second episode, their roles are reversed: when Anthony is nervous about a date, Lydia plays Daphne (the beautiful woman he’s just met in mom’s salon), so he can practice pleasant conversation. Making believe they’re at a restaurant, Anthony complains about the seating (“They always put the brother near the kitchen”) and Lydia comes back with her own joke: “What are you complaining about? Open the kitchen door and that’s where my people are working!” The joke, like most sitcom punchlines, goes nowhere (after a beat for the laugh track, the scene moves awkwardly to the next set-up), while underlining that All About the Andersons is indeed a WB sitcom.
The show looks a bit more comfortable—or at least repetitive—when it comes to jokes about Anderson’s masculinity. In addition to the high heels, the show trades on his efforts to seem tough (he performs a monologue from The Great White Hope for his dad, who notes that he’s no James Earl Jones; and he describes himself as a multi-threat talent: “I sing, act, and dance. People call me the male Wayne Brady”), or concerns that he’s not tough enough (when he spends a few hours in jail, he complains that Joe was late with bail money: “Look at this face. How long you think I was gonna stay single?”). In preparation for the date, Anthony puts on a singularly ugly shiny shirt that inspires name-calling (Joe calls him “Liberace” and Lydia, a “sissy”). Along with the red heels, the shirt suggests that Anthony’s masculinity is not traditional, which is, for some of us, all to his credit.
Where Anthony Anderson’s show is mostly self-aware (if tempered by corny sitcom timing), Master P’s show is wholly self-loving. Playing “Percy Miller” (his given name) on Romeo!, he’s a hiphop producer who spends too much time on the road, as he puts it, “Up all night, chasing bands, not getting’ any sleep.” Still, Romeo (played by 12-year-old Romeo, a.k.a. Percy Miller Jr.), aspires to be like dad, a dream Percy appears to encourage, in spite of his vocal protestations: they wear the same clothes (P’s own P. Miller line, featured prominently in the series), behave similarly, and share an interest in Romeo’s success. At this point, with P’s brother C-Murder incarcerated and other brother Silkk not doing much, Ro is the primary pop scene breadwinner (though P has enough other ventures, between film and tv production and the clothing line, that he hardly need exploit his son any further).
For the sake of the series, Ro defies dad’s insistence that he focus on school. Worried that his own career has limits (at 15, he argues, he’ll be too old to be a star, and he’s probably right), Romeo forms a hip-pop band, Pieces of the Puzzle, with his 15-year-old sister Jody (Erica O’Keith) providing sweet hooks and his brother Gary (Zachary Isaiah Williams) and white foster brother Louis (Noel Callahan) as instrumental back up. They’re like a multi-culti Jackson Five, or maybe the Partridge Family, or maybe Romeo’s own act made Nick-friendly. The regular kid cast is rounded out by a neighbor girl in glasses, Myra (annoying Brittney Wilson), whose obsessive crush on Ro allows for his too-cute cringes and feeble jokes about the restraining order on her (she’s supposed to stay 20 feet away but comes through anyway).
The family lives in Seattle (Jody remarks by way of explanatory backstory, that Percy moved them there so they might live “normal” lives), but it could be anywhere. As the kids have no mom (she’s dead, which is apparently the end of that story), the premiere episode concerns efforts to find the perfect nanny; Percy wants her and the kids do their best to scare her (or possibly, him) off. (The silly auditions montage features a series of inept nannies, one who farts, another who lisps, and another who can’t put down her cell.) They are unable to alarm the loony-seeming-but-ultimately-sensible Mrs. Rogers (Victoria Jackson), who has previous experience with the Big Plum circus and raising 17 brothers and sisters (when they “lost” their mother, literally), a ukulele, and wholly unthreatening ambitions to join the band (“I want to get ukey with it!”).
The premiere episode lays out Ro’s essential boy’s appeal: he plays violent video games (in which he destroys Mrs. Rogers), admires himself (when Louis calls him “a genius,” he nods, “I know! It’s the truth!”), and rhymes like the pro he is. The show plies a formula that worked once already, on MTV’s Crashing With, wherein Master P and Romeo last year spent a couple of days with the Quackenbushes, a rural Louisiana, very white and poor family, whom the extraordinarily wealthy Millers instructed in moral values, the dangers of smoking, and pop-and-lock dance moves. Here the white yokel contrast is embodied by Mrs. Rogers, whose dufus-ness apparently endears her to the kids; that, and her abilities to make burritos and persuade dad to let them perform at some contest.
As Mrs. Rogers doesn’t exactly need life lessons, these are aimed at the Nick audience, and mostly concern the consumption of Romeo paraphernalia. (Family values and bling bling: who says they’re so different?) The series provides all sorts of opportunities to showcase his cute face and his skills on the mic; The premiere episode closes with Ro’s commercially savvy invocation of 50 Cent: “Go shorty, it’s your birthday,” he raps, before launching into a list of his accomplishments, including the fact that he’s the “first hiphop kid with my own show.” And so what if he’s had every conceivable advantage on his way to the top? That’s what dads are for.