The list of what’s wrong with so-called “urban” television programming is long and varied. There are no dramas, too many buffoons, and persistent ghettoization. One of the missing pieces is a good romantic sitcom. Once upon a time that void was filled by the ill treated For Your Love. Now UPN — often called the Urban Peoples Network, since it’s home to most black sitcoms — has introduced Abby, starring Sydney Tamiia Poitier. (Yes, she’s the daughter of the other Poitier.)
The trouble with this little stopgap show is that it’s hard to figure out just why viewers are supposed to like Abby Walker. The series opens as she starts a new job producing for the tv show, West Coast Sports Report. She has a piggish boss, Roger (Sean O’Bryan), and an anchor, Max Ellis (Randy J. Goodwin), who seems smitten with her. She’s a bit of a goofball, though not always endearingly, and she’s cute in that au courant biracial way. So far, none of this seems enough juice to fuel a show, even a light one.
Then there’s Abby’s living situation. She lives with her boyfriend, Will Jefferies (Kadeem Hardison), who by the end of the first episode is her ex, though they decide to continue living together. They break up because the relationship is mediocre and he’s the kind of guy who marks their anniversary and proposes with the same corny line: “I had the perfect gift for you all along: me.” She wisely turns him down, saying, “I could never possibly love you as much as you love yourself.” Because they are unable to decide who keeps their apartment, they agree to live together as “friends.”
This mismatched roommates premise leads to strained humor, some moments that work, others that are overworked. It’s funny when Will insists on walking around in the buff, but can’t take it when Abby follows suit. But their riffing on Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” — Will sings, “I’m playin’ Madden, I know it bugs you, I’m not gon’ stop ’cause you’re not my girlfriend” — gets old.
Though Abby is more or less responsible for the breakup, she’s conflicted. She tries to make Will jealous, but she freaks out whenever he makes moves on other women. In the second episode, they’re forced into a date together and it’s clear Abby‘s writers are leaving open the door of reconciliation between the two — or at least the possibility of an in-house booty call. As her new boss Roger observes, “C’mon, let’s be honest. The two of you getting back together: it’s just a matter of time.”
Which is too bad, since it removes any element of surprise from future reconciliation episodes. Already, the series seems predictable. Hopefully, the writers will give viewers more to chew on than the on-off romance. Although the situation isn’t explored in the first two episodes, Abby’s job looks ripe for laughs and storylines. First, she’s a female sports television producer, and second, she works for a not-too-bright chauvinist (which is not to say Sports Night hasn’t already covered this ground). Roger also happens to be Will’s buddy, and the two men make frequent trips to The Booty Barn, a “gentleman’s” club.
Oddly, there are no sports-related moments for Abby in the first episodes. We don’t see her watching any games, talking shop with Max or Roger, or even running the show. How did she become a sports producer? Have the writers chosen not to show her interest in sports because it should be assumed, or is showing her at work too much character development for a sitcom?
Whatever their thinking, the series would be improved by showing how much Abby fits or doesn’t fit with the sports talking heads. And, though this may be too much to hope for, it would be a smarter show if she gave Roger some comeuppance for his sexist remarks. At least she can, in private moments with her sister Joanne (Tangie Ambrose), lament and vent about them.
Instead, Joanne spends her time on screen telling Abby how much she needs to let go of Will and get out of that apartment. The catch is that whenever Will enters the room, Joanne falls prey to his charms as well. Still, Abby insists, “Breaking up was the right thing, and moving on.” Hopefully the show will break away from the focus on Abby-Will and concentrate more on Abby. A single, career-minded Abby would be vastly more interesting than an on-again, off-again relationship with the (familiar) charming scoundrel.
Unlike Girlfriends, The Parkers or earlier “sister-girl” sitcoms (Living Single comes to mind), Abby‘s writers have an opportunity to develop more fully one character, and give a black woman a star turn. Whereas the other shows tend to give short shrift to the women’s working lives in favor of ensemble storylines, Abby could give a clearer picture of Abby’s life, with time in the office, out with friends and at home.
Writing stories around her work would also give UPN more opportunities to diversify the cast, so that Abby isn’t always in all black or mostly black situations. This isn’t to say that a show with a mostly black cast isn’t worthwhile in and of itself, but it often leads to the aforementioned ghettoization. Perhaps UPN can bust out of the mold this time out.