This humorous slice-of-life sitcom has a serious – and important – message.
Gruff, sarcastic, and over 50, Calvin Butler is a curmudgeon negative about nearly everything…particularly white people. Proudly African-American, Calvin is disgruntled when Dave and Gemma Johnson, a white couple from Michigan, move into his traditionally black neighborhood. By contrast, Calvin’s wife Tina is welcoming, while their sons, unemployed Mal and science whiz Henry, are amused by their father’s discomfort. Relentlessly cheerful and upbeat, but totally clueless about African-American life, Dave and Jemma are determined to fit in; but can all parties concerned learn to be good neighbors and get along?
The Neighborhood is an excellent program. The cast is stellar; as played by Cedric the Entertainer, Calvin Butler follows firmly in the footsteps of previous television “loveable bigots” like Archie Bunker and George Jefferson, bringing both honesty and humor to his role. The rest of the cast is equally good; Tina (Tichina Arnold of Martin, One on One, and Everybody Hates Chris) has an entertainment track record almost as impressive as Cedric’s, while Dave (New Girl’s Max Greenfield), Gemma (2 Broke Girls’ Beth Behrs), Malcolm (Great News’ Sheaun McKinney) and Henry (The Mayor’s Marcel Spears) are also sitcom veterans.
Even more admirable is The Neighborhood’s message, and the show’s method of delivering it. Particularly given the divisions in society today – over politics, race, and nearly everything else – America desperately needs to hear that “we can all get along.” It is nice to see network television acting responsibly in this regard, especially given that many other programs (including CBS’ own revival of Murphy Brown) are all too eager to “get in the face” of anyone not sharing the showrunner’s perspective.
This choice was deliberate. Growing out of his own experience of moving his white family into a black neighborhood, co-creator/executive producer Jim Reynolds stated in a Paley Center panel discussion, “Yes, people have prejudices. All of us do; but ultimately, life goes deeper than race or color. We’re all the same, just different colors. We can get along. but treat everyone, whatever their views, with civility and respect, and you’ll get along with them, because you’ll find you have more in common with them than you think. This is a conversation that has to be had on a larger scale today.”
And in Reynolds’ view, it’s conversation – and comedy — that will ultimately get his message across. “You never teach anyone anything by proselytizing, poking your finger in their chest and telling them what to think. There won’t be any ‘This week, a Very Special Episode of The Neighborhood takes on…’ But if you win hearts, you’ll change minds.”
Finally, The Neighborhood is genuinely funny, and is notably less shrill than All in the Family often was. Calvin Butler’s blunt but humorously expressed statements of prejudice are met, not with counter-harangues from his family or the Johnsons, but by Dave’s over-the-top and desperate efforts to be perceived as not racist, which often tip over into cluelessness, like thinking a group hug is the solution to bonding with their new neighbors. “If I hug you, will you get out of my house?” Calvin replies.
Eschewing toilet humor or graphic content, and with brilliant performances, genuine humor, and an important message that can serve as a “teaching moment” for parents, The Neighborhood is recommended as great viewing for families.
The Neighborhood premieres Monday, October 1 on CBS.