Wanda at Large

I admit that I find most television repulsive. Particularly sitcoms, with their plucky cutouts always setting to rights their miscommunicating worlds in commercial-crammed increments. Even so, I planned an evening around catching Wanda Sykes’ new sitcom, Wanda at Large.

You’ve probably caught Wanda Sykes before, doing stand-up on the Comedy Channel or skits on Chris Rock’s old HBO show. Perhaps you saw her as Biggie Shorty in the criminally underrated movie, Pootie Tang, or on Inside the NFL, a pleasure I haven’t had because I couldn’t possibly wade through all the sports to get to her comic oasis. In all of her appearances, Wanda Sykes tells the truth with a honey-lubed knife. Unlike other “tell-it-like-it-is” comics (David Cross or Chris Rock), Sykes manages to make confrontation comfy, like a drunken, crude best friend. And her new show provides a perfect stage for her one-lining sass. Emily Post will be centrifuging in her grave.

The series centers on the perpetual bad luck of Wanda Hawkins (Sykes), a struggling stand-up comedian who lands a job with a television station. Okay, they’re not venturing too far out onto the limb of imaginative character creation. Her workplace is filled with tight-asses, ripe for Wanda to come in and break all their good China. After her audition segment on gun control, Wanda is invited to join the Sunday morning political roundtable, which her brassy candor quickly derails. The topic for the show is insider trading, but Wanda changes the subject to a fellow panelist’s recent facelift.

On the home front, Wanda’s softer touch is on display. Rather conveniently, she lives across the hall from her widowed sister-in-law and her nephew, Drayton (Jascha Washington), whom she corrupts with dirty comedy records and a pitching lesson showing him how to throw a pitch guaranteed to nail the batter every time. Her home life is similarly refreshingly free of simplicity. Her sister-in-law, Jenny (Tammy Lauren), has lost her husband and expects Wanda to assist in the raising of her niece and nephew.

Based on the first episode, it seems likely that this household’s problems will resemble our own. Like Roseanne, Wanda at Large points out the often overlooked fact that many Americans struggle to make ends meet. Wanda says that she doesn’t have health care, telling her friend Keith, “If I catch anything you can’t cure with Epsom salts, I’m dead.” She also unabashedly appreciates getting drunk and stoned as evidenced by her sloshed aside at the party where she lands her job. She interrupts a group talking about stocks to comment, “Put your money in weed — the price never goes down.” I’m heartened by a sitcom that recognizes the ubiquity of recreational drug use.

Sykes’ show relies heavily on her personality, and lines up many foils for her acerbic comedy. Jason Kravits is flawlessly greasy as Wanda’s craven new boss, Roger, who thinks only in terms of his new hire’s marketability. She also has to deal with Morris (Randy J. Goodwin), a black Republican who co-anchors the political roundtable. He provides a perfect stepping stone for her cultural salvos and a delightfully complicated choice for a shove-and-tug romantic interest.

Although the first episode doesn’t the full brunt of Sykes’ observational punch, it took some risks I found admirable. At one point, Wanda chides the show’s conservative spokesman (Phil Morris), for his flashy patriotism, his flag tie, his flag pin; she calls him a “flaggot.” During the Sunday morning talk show, she lambastes the hypocrisy that pressures intelligent women to get plastic surgery, while male pundits and news anchors are allowed to look like bruised fruit.

One has to give Sykes credit for making any political observations at all. So much of the sitcom landscape is riddled with shows that hinge on humor tied solely to the idiosyncratic chemistry of stock characters or the tired regurgitation of slightly dysfunctional family melodrama. For my precious time, Wanda at Large is as good as sitcoms get.