Silly stereotypes pack `Big House'


April 02, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Remember NBC's The Fresh Prince of Bel Air with Will Smith? Well, ABC's new sitcom, The Big House, is The Fresh Prince in reverse. And it couldn't be more obvious - or less imaginative.

In Fresh Prince, Smith (playing a teen-age character with the same name) suffers culture clash when he goes from inner city life in Philadelphia with his mom to a mansion in Bel Air with his aunt and uncle. In The Big House, Kevin Hart (playing an 18-year-old character with the same name) suffers social-class vertigo as he plunges overnight from a spacious, beach front home in Malibu to the basement of the working-class digs of his aunt and uncle in Philadelphia after his father is sent to prison for embezzlement.

Hart, a standup comic, is likable enough in the role. I mean, he's no Will Smith, but how many comedians are going to have the kind of energy and spark that Smith has? Even as a teen-ager, Smith could command and hold your attention on a big screen in a movie theater - let alone in a half hour TV sitcom.

The problem with The Big House isn't Hart. It's the small, stereotyped sitcom package he's put into by series creators Stephen Engel and David Zuckerman. The family that Kevin comes to live with is described in ABC press materials as "working class." What that means in TV shorthand is that almost everyone in the household is loud, crude and overweight.

The first glimpse we get of the family of Kevin's Aunt Tina (Arnetia Walker) and Uncle Clarence (Keith David) has them barging into an airport waiting area screaming Kevin's name and fighting with one another.

"Don't yell in my ear," Tina screams at Clarence.

"Don't tell me not to yell. I'll yell if I wanna yell," he hollers back.

And, then, putting his mouth next to her ear, he yells, "Kevin Hart. Is there a Kevin Hart here?"

In the first five minutes, there are jokes about masturbation, enlarged female breasts and Uncle Clarence whipping members of the household with a belt. One cousin, CJ (Aaron Grady), greets Kevin by smacking him on the head; another, Warren (Faizon Love), uses his 300-pound-plus size to intimidate the new member of the household.

In the pilot, Kevin enrolls at Drexel University, but as portrayed in this show, college is a place to pick up women, not study. The main story line has Kevin trying to impress a very attractive female student by lying about his circumstances.

In next week's episode, Kevin lies about his religious beliefs to impress a very attractive female churchgoer. Has any realm of religious life suffered more cheap treatments in sitcoms than the African-American church?

The Big House is more than just an uninspired sitcom, it's a maddening one. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air understood the inchoate energy of the great American narrative of upward mobility, and wisely teased, tickled and poked at issues of social class and individual transformation via Smith's character.

The Big House also tries to capitalize on that narrative, but fails to mine its rich comic terrain - filled with the tension and comic energy that come when the social classes clash. Instead this sitcom settles for smack-on-the-head and fat jokes.

Although the sitcom genre has never seemed more exhausted, the networks continue to make African-American sitcoms - to the exclusion of African-American dramas. Maybe all sitcoms are inherently silly and stereotyped, but the networks seem to get downright stupid when they depict African-American life in the loud, crude, simplistic, in-your-face, language of The Big House.


What: The Big House

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

When: 8:30 tonight

In brief: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air goes backward in more ways than one.

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