I Like Chris

Rock’s new UPN sitcom is an unexpectedly sweet portrait of a black working-class family.

I was completely blindsided by the pilot of Everybody Hates Chris, the new sitcom based on Chris Rock’s childhood that premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET on UPN. After an aggressive marketing campaign that suggested this show will single-handedly send Viacom’s ghetto network (whose initials have been jokingly translated as “You People’s Network”) to a de-luxe apartment in the sky, I was expecting an edgy, fast-paced satire, something in the vein of Fox anti-family-values shows like The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, or Arrested Development.

Rock’s show rocks

Much as I love those shows’ dark, twisted takes on domestic dysfunction (and continue to maintain that Jane Kaczmarek’s ongoing failure to win an Emmy for Malcolm is one of the perennial disappointments of the awards season), Everybody Hates Chris won my heart by trying something even more daring: It’s nice. Chris Rock’s standup and his hosting gigs at awards shows can have a wild, almost dangerous edge, but the show he executive-produced and narrates in voice-over is unexpectedly sweet-spirited. It’s The Cosby Show without the class privilege, or The Wonder Years with a hip-hop soundtrack. It’s a kind of throwback to an earlier television era, a comedy about a functional family whose members treat each other with affection and respect (laced with the occasional creative threat: “I will put my foot so far up your behind you’ll have toes for teeth”).

That last is uttered by Chris’s mother Rochelle (Tichina Arnold), who moves heaven and earth to get her family from the projects to the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Unbeknownst to her, Bed-Stuy is on the verge of becoming the epicenter of the ‘80s crack epidemic. Julius (Terry Crews) is hilarious as the cheapskate dad, who knows the precise value of every scrap of wasted food (“That’s a dollar nine cent in the trash!” he bellows, holding aloft a half-gnawed chicken bone). Julius is the gruff type, but he’s also a loving dad who works two night-shift jobs in a row, sleeping in his uniform in between. Their three kids, nerdy Chris (Tyler James Williams), effortlessly popular Drew (Tequan Richmond), and bratty daddy’s girl Tonya (Imani Hakim) squabble and fuss, but they also protect each other and their parents from the small indignities of daily life.

The Hollywood Reporter’s observation that “race and class melt away in the presence of these relatable characters” reminds me of something my unconsciously biased grandfather once said after seeing Ben Vereen on TV: “He was such a good dancer I didn’t even notice he was black.” Everybody Hates Chris isn’t strident or preachy about racial issues, but it’s an unabashedly black show, constantly aware of social and economic context and the way discrimination and poverty shape the lives of minority families. One of the pilot’s most moving details is served up as a total throwaway: When Chris wakes his father up at 5 p.m. to begin his double shift, the big man stretches and yawns before asking dazedly, “What job am I going to?” “You’re driving a truck,” his son reminds him gently. This unsentimental glimpse at the daily grind of work is a rare thing in the usually class-blind world of the American sitcom.

This is a family show, firmly entrenched in an early prime-time slot, that contains not a single dirty joke or coy double-entendre, but which casually uses one of the most incendiary words in American English. When a bully at Chris’ all-white Italian middle school (you’ll have to look carefully to notice it’s called “Corleone Junior High”) tosses the N-word at him in a fight, the adult Chris observes in voice-over that “he got away with calling me nigger that day, but later in life he said it at a DMX concert and almost got stomped to death.” Later, the bully challenges Chris to a full-on grudge match after school. Chris agrees, with the rationale that “school fights only last a minute. Somebody always comes along to break them up.” But when a passing cop—a white man—walks by without saying a word, the battle becomes a 30-minute rout, with Chris on the losing end.

Everybody Hates Chris also visits the previously unmined territory of black generational nostalgia. Instead of the disco-tinged memories of That 70s Show, Chris features a 13-year-old boy with Grandmaster Flash posters on his wall and a fantasy life populated with fly girls and puffy white sneakers. It also has a bouncy period soundtrack, ranging from Run-DMC to the Furious Five to the Paul McCartney/Stevie Wonder collaboration “Ebony and Ivory.” I only hope this brave little David of a sitcom, scheduled against Goliaths like The O.C. (one of the whitest shows on television) gets a chance to build the audience it needs to grow.