Everybody Hates Chris

Everybody Hates Chris is a stupid and obvious play on another stupid title, Everybody Loves Raymond. But creators Chris Rock and Ali LeRoi use it to throw down the gauntlet on where they stand vis-à-vis the sorry state of the network family sitcom, positioning the show as the anti-sitcom that actually tackles issues like race and class much the way Roseanne positioned itself as the straight-talking alternative to The Hogan Family and Growing Pains in the late ’80s.

Outside the title, the show doesn’t indulge in any other TV meta-jokes. The best rebuke to staid programming is to create a vibrant alternative and Everybody Hates Chris succeeds by balancing the bite of Rock’s comedy with the nostalgic conventions of a family-oriented coming-of-age tale. Like Jean Shepherd’s short story memoirs, the show wrings humor out of the particulars of poverty without glossing over the hurt. It melds adult and children’s entertainment without being cute or pandering to either group. In the pilot, the show cracks wise on racism, rock cocaine, school shootings, welfare, and the inequities in NYC’s public school system. The networks have been wondering how to compete with the no-holds barred nature of cable programming. This is it.

The brilliantly constructed and deceptively complex pilot succeeds by not trying to force an awkward story over the exposition required of a premiere episode. Instead it follows Chris (Tyler James Williams) over the course of a day during the first week at his new school; small incidents introduce the supporting characters with precise strokes. The opening explains how Rock’s family has moved out of the projects to a row house in Bed-Stuy Do-Or-Die Brooklyn. Rock observes in voiceover, “Had we known that Bed-Stuy would be the center of the crack epidemic, I guess we would’ve picked someplace else.”

Chris has to take a bus to a school in Brooklyn Beach because his mom wants him to get a better education from a white public school (“Not a Harvard type education, just a not-sticking-up-a-liquor-store education”). At school, he has to deal with various indignities — contending with racist bully Joey Caruso (Travis Flory), keeping his brother’s good shoes clean, not losing his bus pass — and his responsibilities as the oldest brother at home — trying to keep his brother and sister quiet while his father sleeps, not eating the big piece of chicken, waking his father up to go to his two night jobs.

Chris lives a difficult but disciplined life. He’s an outcast but not a nerd or rebel. He’s too smart for middle school and he confronts his problems with brief flashes of the wit that we know will lead to his success. Rock has touched on his childhood, particularly being bused to an all-white school, in his stand-up act, and some of the lines here are variations on old jokes. The pilot relies heavily on his voiceover and there’s an inherent danger that to do so will cost the onscreen development of the others characters.

In the first episode this isn’t really a problem, but there are a few times when Rock provides unnecessary jokes and his role as narrator is unclear. Once he comments, “Much like rock n’ roll, school shootings were also invented by blacks and stolen by white men.” It’s a jarring joke that seems lifted from his Columbine routine from five years ago. At another point, Rock reveals that in the future, Caruso is beaten at a DMX concert for yelling “nigger.” How does he know this? Is Rock a grown-up version of Chris or an omniscient deity?

The writers deftly harness Rock’s sensibility and stand-up talents. The show is not above milking broad laughs from his tribulations — “Ebony and Ivory” plays over Chris’ fight with Caruso — but nuances that nail the child’s world vividly. The vagaries of racism are illustrated in his first confrontation with Caruso. What seems to be building to a fight is stopped by the school principal (Dannon Green), who first scolds the bully, then turns to Chris and says, “Don’t bump into me again.” After this run-in, Chris makes his first friend, the similarly tormented nerd Greg (Vincent Martella) who, Rock acknowledges, wasn’t “my first choice for a friend, but mutual ass-kicking brings people together.”

The subtlety of the pilot’s design is revealed in the final scene. Chris is lying in bed late at night, stressed out over the day’s events. His dad opens the door and asks why he’s still awake. Chris doesn’t want to tell him about the bully, thinking his dad’s life is much harder. As his dad leaves, Rock says in voiceover, “My father wasn’t the type to say, ‘I love you.’ He was one of four fathers on the block. ‘I’ll see you in the morning’ meant he was coming home. Coming home was his way of saying, ‘I love you.'”

It is a moment that captures what seems to be the show’s modest but powerful guiding principal, to recognize that the ties that bind a family together aren’t revealed in canned heart-to-hearts, and to make it through the day and still count yourself lucky is plenty reason enough to keep on working for something better.