Many black people don’t like Black Entertainment Television. I’m not only saying that many black people don’t watch BET, I’m saying many don’t like it whether they watch it or not. They don’t like what the BET brand has come to represent, and they don’t like the idea that the network’s programming could serve as a representation of what contemporary black life is. Once a network has executed an ill-advised programming strategy for long enough, it becomes really difficult to shed that reputation. AMC managed to do it, but only after bringing to the air two of the most critically acclaimed dramas in the history of the medium, as well as one of basic cable’s biggest audience draws. But look at Lifetime, which after years and years of trying to pivot away from its Mother, May I Sleep With Danger days, still struggles with the image as the network that peddles ripped-from-the-headlines cheese. And thanks to poor programming choices like Cita’s World and BET Uncut, BET has had trouble disabusing its audience of the notion that its raison d’être is to present black life as a never-ending, booty-shaking, blinged-out bacchanal.
Since its inception in 2004, TV One has tried to capitalize on the negative perceptions of BET, in the hopes of siphoning off its audience. It helps that, unlike BET, TV One didn’t start out with such a heavily music-based schedule, opting instead of repeats of black sitcoms and original unscripted fare like Black Men Revealed and Baisden After Dark. The network also made the bold choice of broadcasting coverage from the 2008 Democratic National Convention, which seemed like an overt suggestion that TV One would seek to fill the gap that BET left open as its dedication to news coverage all but dried up completely. TV One isn’t nearly the player BET is yet, and isn’t in as many homes, but it has certainly gotten the attention of those with access to it. The network’s Behind The Music-style docuseries Unsung, which examines the lives and careers of under-appreciated soul and hip-hop acts such as Freddie Jackson and The Sylvers, is a hit by TV One’s modest standards.
But if TV One wants to truly slay BET, the only way to do so is by figuring out the solution to the problem that has seemed to elude both networks: how to create high-quality scripted fare under crippling financial constraints. BET has fared much better with scripted programming, beginning in 2008 with Somebodies, an imperfect but charming sitcom that only lasted one season. BET saw massive success when it picked up The Game following its ouster from The CW’s schedule, but that show’s luster has faded since its new episodes started airing, and it’s difficult to discern whether there’s been a genuine dip in quality, or if was poisoned by BET’s bad mojo. It would only take one really solid scripted show to topple BET’s wounded giant.
The Rickey Smiley Show, TV One’s latest attempt at scripted programming, is not that show. Not only is it not a potential BET killer, but by airing it, TV One runs the risk of courting the same suspicion it’s tried so hard to duck. Rickey Smiley can be funny. As a stand-up comedian, he tends towards the kind of black comedy that was all the rage back in the days of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and BET’s ComicView. But Smiley became best known for his prank calls, which blended black cultural references with Jerky Boys-style absurdity. His style of comedy is also well-suited to his nationally syndicated drive-time morning show. The Rickey Smiley Show, however, is terrible. It looks cheap. The acting is bad. The writing is bad. With regard to the writing, it’s not just the matter of it not being funny. It’s that much like the sitcoms TBS pulls off the Tyler Perry assembly line, there’s almost a fundamental misunderstanding of comedic rhythms. Jokes seem to end before they begin, and if it wasn’t for the canned laughter, there would be no way of knowing when a punchline is supposed to land. If the laugh track is the punctuation, there are sentence fragments and comma splices all over this thing.
It comes as no surprise that the pilot was written by Anthony C. Hill, who is credited for several episodes of Tyler Perry’s Meet The Browns and House Of Payne. The Rickey Smiley Show, which centers on a fictionalized version of its star, is just as surreal and comedy-free as Perry’s shows. And just like those shows, it’s likely to leave viewers wondering if a competently produced, lasting show with a black cast is something anyone will ever see again. There’s no reason to watch this show for anyone except Smiley die-hards, and I could imagine even them being disappointed when they see that the show isn’t a sitcom distillation of Smiley’s comedic point of view—it’s merely a terrible family sitcom with him in it.
If there’s something positive to say about The Rickey Smiley Show, it’s that the show does at least try something different with its family dynamic. Here, it’s Smiley who is the attentive father to his three kids, while his ex-wife Monica (Demetria McKinney) is constantly disappointing the kids with broken promises as she invariably puts her career first. Meanwhile, Roz Ryan (best known for the Sherman Helmsley vehicle Amen) plays Sylvia, the aunt who raised Rickey when his mother wasn’t up to the challenge. When Monica cancels plans with the kids, Sylvia reads her the riot act, but Monica holds her ground; she took the responsibility for the kids while Rickey was building his comedy career, and she won’t be guilted for trying to reclaim the opportunity she gave up. Like the other sitcoms of this ilk, there are interesting considerations of contemporary black family life that could make for a good show, if they weren’t rattling around inside a terrible sitcom.
But the reality is that an hour-long drama isn’t something that can be effectively pulled off with a minimal number of locations and minuscule production schedule in the way a sitcom can. But it’s hard for me to believe that there isn’t some kind of concept, some kind of solution that doesn’t have to end up with black scripted shows looking like so little time, talent, and effort went into producing them. Until TV One figures out what this solution could be, it might be better off staying out of the ring.
- Ray J is also in this, in case anyone wanted to know what Ray J is up to these days.