T. J. Holmes’ decision to leave CNN—where he anchored a weekend-morning newscast for five years—to go to BET came as such a surprise that Holmes is required to do a bit about it in the first episode of his new BET talk show. The bit itself is neither funny nor fresh, which tells you how urgently Holmes and his staff felt the need to somehow address and make light of the subject, just so they could feel that they’d gotten it out of the way. However irrelevant CNN may have become in recent years, the network can always take what comfort it can in feeling more relevant than BET. But if Holmes’ move has a whiff of career suicide about it, that just makes it more admirable. If Holmes felt a need for a talk show that addressed current events and popular culture from a specifically black American perspective, he was right, and he was right to take a chance that he’d be able to develop a show like that at a network that has a well-founded reputation for lack of ambition and underserving its target demographic. He may even have the grace to see it as a hopeful sign that, by the time his show hit the air, a little bit of his thunder had been stolen by W. Kamau Bell’s show on FX.
Totally Biased marks an attempt to find a different kind of format that might provide for a new way to talk about current issues on TV. You can say the same for its stablemate show starring Russell Brand, which hasn’t been as successful. Still, whatever you think of Brand, his personality, or his taste in movie scripts, he and Bell both have the virtue of knowing who they are. On the basis of his first week at BET, Holmes isn’t there yet, and he’s steering a show that seems to want credit for being freewheeling and a little satirical without quite breaking free of its own comfortable straightjacket. Sounding like an elementary-school teacher announcing the institution of casual Fridays, Holmes faces the camera and promises that “We’re going to talk, we’re going to have a good time, but we’re also going to think.” Part of the open secret of the fake-news shows on Comedy Central (and Bell’s show, too) is that they don’t pretend to believe that thinking and having a good time are mutually exclusive activities.
Holmes begins every episode by dedicating the proceedings to a number, saying that it relates to “something relevant to the black community,” and then he does a little comedy routine, speculating on what the number could mean. Take “34,” for example. “Is it the number of points Romney will lose Pennsylvania by now that the voter I.D. law failed?” Or could it be “the number of hours before Nicki Minaj realizes that Mariah Carey is actually a bigger deal?” (At the end of the program, Holmes reveals that it is, in fact, the number of days until Election Day. So get out and vote!) When Holmes does scripted comedy bits, he looks as comfortable in his own skin as Dick Clark does spitting out cusswords and shooting people in the 1968 movie Killers Three. (Ever see that one? It is so innovative in its stunt casting that the local sheriff is played by Merle Haggard. Mama tried, indeed.)
In the first week of Don’t Sleep!, Holmes segues into clips plugging his guests’ movies and TV shows with the natural grace of Laurel and Hardy backing a moving van through the front door and parking it in the living room. He does an especially awkward interview with Queen Latifah, whose appearance is preceded by a clip from her new all-black-cast Lifetime version of Steel Magnolias, in which Alfre Woodard has all the dialogue. When it’s over, Holmes asks the Queen if she thinks it would be a good thing to have more shows like this. For a split second, I thought he was asking if she thinks the best that black entertainers can do for material is to dig up a 20-year-old sloppy tearjerker and cast it with black actors, so she can pay herself the insult of taking a role so pathetic it was once deemed a perfect fit for Sally Field. But he’s really asking if she thinks it’s good for there to be black movies and TV shows about family and friendship, to provide a little something different from the latest sequel to Attack Of The Street Pimps. Queen Latifah bravely tells him that she actually thinks it’s a good thing for people to see the kind of TV film she is starring in and executive produced.
So far, Don’t Sleep! has been most effective when it’s most CNN-like, especially in the panel discussions that take up the latter half of the show. The first episode deals with a terrific subject—the high incarceration high among black men—but only succeeds in turning it to hash. In the discussion, Hill Harper (an cast member of CSI: NY who’s written a number of books, such as Letters To A Young Brother), Sherri Shepherd, and Brandon T. Jackson take turns politely shouting over each other and demanding that someone come up with a solution. No one has anything of import to contribute, unless it’s news to you that education is good and adults have responsibilities. Don’t Sleep! clearly wants to tap into some of that Daily Show/Bill Maher “comedians commenting comedically on current concerns” energy, but so far, the comics brought on haven’t done enough work to justify whatever they lifted from the donut tray in the green room. The most assertive of them, Loni Love, just seems to be looking for whatever excuse she can find to insert what sound like excerpts from her stand-up act. Issa Rae, the star and creator of the Awkward Black Girl web series, does a segment, riffing on the educational lessons young women can glean from rap videos set in strip clubs. It goes on forever and falls so flat that poor Holmes feels he has to explain to the dead-silent studio audience that Rae is doing this thing comedians do, where they only pretend to believe outrageous things, for the purpose of making you go ha-ha.
The series’ high points so far have been the discussions of the first Obama-Romney debate, with former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, and Republican strategist Ron Christie, and a punch-up over Fox News’ dismay that President Obama sounds “black” when he speaks to black audiences. That last one was actually a bit of a train wreck, but it was the kind of train wreck that can make for exciting TV, thanks to the presence of conservative minister and raving lunatic Jesse Lee Peterson. So far, the show has been careful to provide a tidy balance of viewpoints, with well-behaved black conservatives such as Christie and Michael Steele respectfully disagreeing with their host and the others on their panels. (When Holmes automatically referred to Steele as supporting “the other guy” in the presidential election, Steele good-humoredly replied, “That would be Mitt Romney, ‘the other guy.’”)
By contrast, the stern, sour-faced Peterson refused to behave, glowering and treating the others with open contempt. After he said that most black people voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because he was black, and because “he was a liberal Democrat, and they knew they were going to get a cell phone,” Holmes shut him down, saying that he’d crossed a line and become offensive to the audience. He waited until there was only a minute or so left in the discussion before doing it, and it left him looking both forceful and reasonable. (For his part, Peterson remained in his chair and continued to sputter under his breath as Michael Eric Dyson used up the remaining airtime.) But it left a faint smell of gunpowder in the air.
Generally, Don’t Sleep! doesn’t seem to want to be the kind of show where people get into real fights and insult each other on-camera. And it doesn’t have to be, but it might want to look hard at what it does well and what it doesn’t do well and rethink its commitment to the comedy trappings. Another of the guests this week was Al Sharpton, whose presence reminded me of how far Politically Correct was from its most successful self when it originally premièred. The early episodes shied away from specific issues in the news, preferring to stick to vague, gooey non-issues, such as whether prostitution should be decriminalized. I remember a moment when Bill Maher mused that politicians don’t usually come out for prostitution, and Sharpton said that was very true; they were more likely to have them come to their homes. As the waves of laughter from the studio audience stopped the show cold, Maher radiated mixed feelings: You could see that he was glad that someone on his show was being funny, but that it stung that it wasn’t the host getting the laughs. Holmes seems like a guy who doesn’t care who scores the best moments on his show, so long as there are some best moments. That’s reason enough to root for his show to get itself together and have a higher percentage of moments than it had its inaugural week.