At least in terms of public reception, Tyler Perry is the Lena Dunham of black people—or maybe Lena Dunham is the Tyler Perry of women. It’s fashionable to tear apart everything they create, fashionable and easy, because it pushes a lot of buttons. Tyler Perry would probably be the first to say that his work makes no attempt to be particularly sophisticated; in the context of other cinema and television, his productions lack anything particularly groundbreaking in terms of structure, plot, or thematic resonance. Black actors and critics have spoken out against Perry’s work, arguing that it perpetuates existing stereotypes about black people and capitalizes upon conservative social themes about everyone else. This is largely true, but at this point in his career, perhaps irrelevant.
By now, Tyler Perry has a formula that works, and he’s sticking to it. His work might be critically unsound but it draws audiences—and money—and most importantly, Oprah Winfrey. The latest additions to his body of work are two new shows on Oprah’s network OWN: The Haves And The Have Nots, an hourlong nighttime soap airing Tuesdays, and Love Thy Neighbor, a multi-camera sitcom airing Wednesdays.
Let’s start with the weaker offering first. Love Thy Neighbor is a spinoff of Tyler Perry’s House Of Payne, porting over Palmer Williams, Jr.’s character Floyd into an ancillary position with a new family. This one is about as stereotypically dysfunctional, with matriarch Hattie Mae (Patrice Lovely) channeling one of Perry’s classic archetypes—the churchgoing, hardworking, browbeating mother and grandmother. There is so little fresh about this sitcom that it is hard to think of anything much to say about it. The production values make it look rather uncannily like a sitcom made in the mid-1980s, right down to the flowered wallpaper and upholstery and the apparently marooned sets, where the exterior shots are so clearly divorced from the interiors that willing suspension of belief must be invoked early and often. Even the humor is depressingly banal—cross-dressing is one of Perry’s weaknesses, and he uses it again in “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” the pilot for Love Thy Neighbor. Insinuations toward homosexuality, familial abuse, and unsavory sex were and in some places still are sitcom staples, but there’s nothing interesting about any of it, and too often, it’s not even remotely funny. Instead it feels sad and outdated to boot.
Indeed, it seems that Perry’s strength may be in drama, instead of comedy. I have no doubt that Love Thy Neighbor passes a particular standard of humor for some audiences—probably audiences who are familiar with and nostalgic for past sitcoms—but where it gets most interesting is in the first nugget of drama, presented in the first episode in between bad jokes on each side. Uncle Floyd knocks on a tenant’s door to collect rent, and inside finds that his tenant Crystal is dating a man he knows to be married to Hattie Mae’s daughter. Lionel is a two-timing cheater, obviously, and there’s something funny about being caught outright, but the shifting moralities of the moment feel fresh in a way that nothing else in the episode does. As it turns out, the affair is a plot device that puts Hattie’s daughter and grandson in her house, living on her sofa, as they sort out their lives (and presumably high jinks ensue once they move in). But the fact of the affair itself, and the multiple conversations about men cheating on women much younger than them, catches the attention far more than any of the contrived, shallow comedy.
Perry’s other offering is not intended to be funny in the slightest—though you could get a lot of traction out of keeping score as to how often its extremely attractive cast of characters feels the need to take their clothes off. The easiest way to describe The Haves And The Have Nots is that it feels like the black Downton Abbey, with all of the issues and intrigue that phrase implies. A white family owns a house; two black families are positioned around them, as respectively friends or servants or enemies, depending on the situation. More than any of Perry’s comedies, The Haves And The Have Nots feels like a dramatic interpretation of America’s continuing struggles with race, without any attempt to make it feel “safe” with layers of comic styling. It’s also an overtly salacious soap, complete with stints in rehab, secret identities, self-harm, hidden affairs, and the ever-encroaching menace of characters who might turn out to be gay. It’s perpetually stuck in the tension of building action, that endless second act that seems to define soap operas and which can also be exhausting. Will Hanna ever tell the Cryers that Candace is her daughter? Will Candy stop blackmailing Mr. Cryer because he’s running for governor? Is Jeffrey gay?! The characters and plot twists are not terribly original, though the acting is surprisingly solid, especially by Crystal R. Fox’s Hanna.
But beyond the mechanics of the show itself, what strikes the viewer—what always strikes the viewer about Perry’s work, no matter how poorly made it usually is—is how aggressively different his productions are about the role of black people in America. In The Haves And The Have Nots, black characters take up about two-thirds of the available roles; in Love Thy Neighbor, that jumps to nearly the entire cast. The cultural references, the dialogue, the richness of detail that makes a character or a plot feel familiar and recognizable is how Perry continues to be a cultural force to be reckoned with. Without those details, he loses the one thing that makes him stand out—the novelty of recognition from a group that rarely if ever sees itself reflected in popular culture.
With that in mind, the dramatic soapiness of The Haves And The Have Nots takes on a luridly dramatic appeal. There is something surprising, even scandalous, about seeing black men and women in the trappings of a huge mansion, about seeing a white man and a black woman conduct an affair, when one owns the mansion and the other is the daughter of the hired help. Without the veneer of comedy, the overstated drama lets the viewer fully experience that racially charged environment. To draw the parallel to Downton Abbey again—what fascinates most about Julian Fellowes’ show to a modern viewer is the stark contrast between the rules then and the rules now, whether those rules govern fine dining, votes for women, or the rights of homosexual men. What’s particularly jarring and yet fascinating about The Have And Have Nots is that the rules now are the ones that feel unwieldy and flawed. It’s still an excruciatingly slow, over-the-top soap opera—but there’s something appealing about that subversion of expectation. As far as Perry’s body of work goes, Love Thy Neighbor is more of the same, but The Haves And The Have Nots provides an interesting digression, one that is more explicit about the continued conversation about race.
The Haves And The Have Nots: C-
Love Thy Neighbor: D
- Apparently, The Haves And The Have Nots debuted to record high ratings for any première for OWN.
- Candy’s dress in that opening episode has some Jessica Rabbit thing going on, am I right?
- And for what it’s worth: “Tyler Perry Hates Black Women,” a post from the Crunk Feminist Collective which went semi-viral today.