The Tracy Morgan Show

The Tracy Morgan Show is a surprise, if only because it’s on NBC, a network typically appealing to affluent white 30somethings. Perhaps this is because the network is facing the ends of Friends and Frasier. Taking into account recent events over at the network, the fact that this midseason replacement has so little in common with those shows may have something to do with Coupling‘s disastrous debut.

Airing on Tuesdays before NBC’s other show featuring a black comedian, Whoopi, Tracy Morgan‘s intro sequence features a smooth hiphop track by costar Heavy D, played over images of New York housing projects, elevated subway tracks, and children playing on stoops — a long way from Central Perk. The website declares the series’ focus on a “hardworking family man pursuing happiness with streetwise wit, attitude, and wisdom,” but Tracy Mitchell (Morgan) is more bland than “streetwise,” a means to market “blackness” to the network’s usual viewers.

Blue-collar Tracy jokes his way through his troubles with over-the-top, occasionally physical humor. His no-nonsense wife Alicia (Tamala Jones) cares for the kids, 13-year-old Derrick (Marc John Jeffries) and seven-year-old Jimmy (Bobb’e J. Thompson), and plays “straight man” to Tracy. His parenting style is equal parts Martin Lawrence and Bill Cosby, punctuated with less than amusing faux pas. (It might be called a working-class imitation of The Cosby Show.) In the first episode, Tracy instructs Derrick in the art of talking to girls by awkwardly imitating club dance moves at the dinner table and embarrassing his audience. Neither helpful nor very funny, the performance only underlines Tracy’s haplessness.

As the trailers indicate, the younger son, Jimmy, is primed to steal the show. While Derrick struggles to approach the girl he likes, Jimmy checks out her butt and suggestively asks her if she has “any sisters.” In the second episode, “Doctor? NO!”, Jimmy’s afraid to go to the doctor’s office, but overcomes his fear when he learns of Tracy’s own fears, resulting from his underprivileged childhood, when doctors’ offices and hospitals were places to die. And now you see how helpful deprivation can be.

The show’s second setting — Tracy’s auto shop — occasions more stereotypes. Along with coworkers Spoon (John Witherspoon) and Bernard (Heavy D), Tracy must deal with Freddie (Katt Williams), a customer who repeatedly tries to pay with something other than cash. In the first episode, he offers a cooler-full of meat as payment for car repairs; when he’s refused, he comes back later with a guard dog to offer. The minstrel-show-like Freddie harkens back to Morgan’s own role as “Hustle Man” on Martin, but here the comedy is less focused. It tends instead toward obvious insults, concerning Bernard’s weight or his (oddly feminizing) fear of birds.

Such hackneyed humor reduces any questions related to race or racism to banal one-liners. In the premiere episode, for example, Tracy arrives at the garage to find that an air hose has been stolen. Spoon suggests the thieves are white men, but Tracy and Bernard immediately contradict him, explaining that “no white man” would come into their neighborhood after dark. More irritating than insightful, jokes like this do little to challenge anyone’s expectations, whether the traditional NBC audience or the new “urban” (read: “black”) viewers the network might seek to attract.

No single series can right the many wrongs of the history of minority representations in media, but The Tracy Morgan Show — predictable and insipid — doesn’t even make an effort. While it is far from being intolerable, the series is hardly the “sharp-edged family comedy” that NBC’s website claims it to be.