Along with the rap collective Arrested Development and The Arsenio Hall Show, In Living Color was part of a curious wave of Bush I-era black entertainment that seemed revolutionary when it first came out, but vaguely embarrassing almost immediately afterward. Keenen Ivory Wayans' showcase for his various siblings brought a much-needed black perspective to sketch comedy, but the show itself has aged about as gracefully as the day-glo spandex ensembles favored by its Fly Girl urban dance squad.
Critics initially hailed In Living Color as a welcome antidote to the overwhelmingly white warhorse Saturday Night Live, which famously relegated its non-Eddie Murphy black cast members to unenviable token roles. Even Chris Rock didn't come into his own until after he left SNL (and his brief In Living Color stint, for that matter). Alas, In Living Color soon fell prey to many of SNL's weaknesses, primarily an over-reliance on recurring characters and hackneyed catchphrases.
In Living Color had one big advantage over SNL in that it only had to fill a third as much airtime. A number of skits are deadly ("The Buttmans," for instance, whose title says everything that needs to be said about it), but there's comfort in knowing that a new sketch is only a few minutes away. In Living Color occasionally ventured into satireWayans does amusing impersonations of Arsenio Hall, Jesse Jackson, and Little Richardbut more often, it was content to regurgitate regressive stereotypes concerning swishy gays, boozy bums, and hot-blooded Latinos. It's hard to think of the show as a bold step forward for black women when a typical skit involves Oprah Winfrey devouring food and bad-mouthing no-good men before floating into the air and finally blowing up.
In a puff-piece included on In Living Color's first-season DVD set, everyone enthuses about how they were encouraged to push everything to the limit, but what the show really needed was some reining in. Too often, it confused "broad and crude" with "risky and transgressive." In tone and sensibility, it was way more Mad TV than SCTV. In Living Color broke down doors, but not every trailblazer can be Jackie Robinson.