TV Land's new sitcom, The Soul Man, raises all kinds of warning flags for African-American viewers.
First is the prospect for yet another bug-eyed, strutting, conniving preacher whose sole motive is to separate congregants from their money.
Second is that Cedric The Entertainer, a really gifted comedian, gave us a preview of how he would behave in a pulpit in Man of the House, a 2005 film starring Tommy Lee Jones as a Texas Ranger assigned to guard a bunch of cheerleaders who were witnesses to a murder.
But Cedric as the Rev. Boyce Ballentine, whose calling to the ministry has moved him from a Grammy-nominated popular music career to his father’s church, takes the high road. And even though the setting is inescapably familiar, with a few stock-character church ladies thrown in for good measure, The Soul Man shows promise.
Think Amen without an overserving of Sherman Hemsley’s bantam rooster cavorting all over God’s good earth. That NBC comedy (1986-91) was entertaining, but landed at a time that audiences were starved for portrayals of African-Americans in stable, middle-class settings even more than audiences today. The bar is higher now and, Tyler Perry’s boisterous offerings notwithstanding, the expectations are greater.
The Soul Man, premiering Wednesday, June 20 at 10 p.m. ET, works best when Cedric turns on the charm. His appeals to a higher authority somehow seem endearing. His love for his family is appealing. His commitment to service comes off as sincere.
Cedric has enough flourishes of Bill Cosby to appeal to a general audience. Be careful though when he’s interacting with his wife (played by Niecy Nash); their displays of affection are considerably more racy than anything Cosby brought to our living rooms. It works for Cedric, though, because he had a successful career as a soul singer whose songs must have mimicked Teddy Pendergrass ("Turn Off the Lights"), but lapped him on the contemporary language track.
So to understand the “situation” for this comedy, audiences have to imagine a successful entertainer leaving the grand stage to succeed his father in the pulpit of a community church. And while it’s clear that Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine heard the call from God, his wife and daughter are at best reluctant converts. And one aspect of this comedy about a seminary dropout who first “had to be a playa” is the echo of Mama I Want to Sing, one in a series of short-run but profitable Broadway shows staged primarily to line up church charter buses at the theater door.
The Rev. Ballentine hangs onto a few old habits that give his character at least a toehold in his former world. His ne’er do well younger brother Barton (Wesley Jonathan) is the impish (read that a Wayans baby brother) character whose behavioral compass wavers somewhere between Puck and Sportin’ Life.
The characters are likeable. The situation is predictable, but entertaining. The laugh track is unnecessary.
Want to see the show now? TV Land is previewing the pilot episode on its website before the show's premiere.