As Troy McClure once said: “Spinoff! Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?” The idea of taking a popular character from a successful show is a tried and true one in television history, either as a method to keep parts of the old show going post-cancellation or to take a breakout character and channel that energy in a new direction. While the current track record on spinoffs is hit-and-miss (for every Private Practice, there’s a Joey) the most venerable sitcoms of yesteryear produced not only shows that managed to live a respectable life, but also managed to do it more than once. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All In The Family, for instance, produced no fewer than three spinoffs apiece.
It stands to reason, then, that a network like TV Land, with an established a track record of mining the tropes and techniques of classic sitcoms for new product, would eventually try a spinoff of its own. The problem there is that given the reputation of its product—Hot In Cleveland, Retired At 35, Happily Divorced, The Exes—there’s a serious deficit of characters anyone would really want to see more of on their own. For a few years now, TV Land has continued to roll out shows that do well enough by their standards to earn renewals, but while its efforts are intended to be traditional, they frequently come across as merely lazy. At their best these shows are boring, and at their worst, they inspire dispassionate loathing. (Retired At 35, in particular, was odious enough for this publication to declare it the fifth worst show of 2011.)
As a sad consequence, it’s hard to approach The Soul Man with any sort of enthusiasm, especially given the character they’re spinning off—Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine—isn’t even an established character from any of these shows, but a bit player introduced in Hot In Cleveland’s penultimate season two episode as a marriage counselor to Betty White’s Elka. True, the show could go worse than trying to absorb some of the power that is Betty White, but the connection here is flimsy at best, and I doubt few people will be tuning into this show based that one appearance.
So leaving that connection aside, what is there to The Soul Man? Well, the premise of the show fits with the fish out of water scenario that most other TV Land originals have followed. Boyce, played by Cedric The Entertainer, is a former R&B singer known for his double platinum hit “Sex Wichoo,” who’s made the decision to leave the performing life and take up the family calling of becoming a minister. The decision hasn’t sat well with his wife Lolli (Niecy Nash, best known as Deputy Williams from Reno 911!) or his daughter Lyric (Jazz Raycole), who are used to being in the spotlight and now have to play nice with a judgmental congregation.
It’s a heavier concept than Hot In Cleveland or Retired At 35, trading materialism and celebrity for a higher purpose, which is why it’s curious that this episode isn’t a premise pilot setting up Boyce making that decision. The episode starts a few weeks after he’s become ordained and gone back to the church, and the episode’s plots are less about him fitting in than they are the day-to-day problems of someone who finds himself in these circumstances. There’s not a lot of context given as to why Boyce made the decision he did—he discusses how he heard “the calling” with his father Barton (John Beasley) in the middle of the episode, but it quickly moves past that into generic father-son banter, which robs it of its impact. (“How is that a foul?” “Dad, the man is bleeding!”)
In fact, that’s one of the problems with The Soul Man pilot, in that it feels like there’s something off with the general structure. The episode’s central plots—Lolli trying to drum up business for her new salon, Lyric trying to get on an MTV reality show—each feel like they’ve had a few minutes trimmed off a scene here and a scene there, and the resolution for both is dismissed the minute Boyce gets a phone call to attend to a dying parishioner. The supporting characters aren’t particularly deep to begin with either, feeling like archetypes culled from the TV Land vaults. Barton’s a cantankerous old man unhappy with his son’s past (“I did whole sermons on how the devil possessed you!”), Lyric doesn’t get any screentime beyond a couple moments of whining, and Boyce’s slacker of a younger brother Stamps (Wesley Jonathan) moves in and out of the show without ever being truly integrated into it.
But as much as the show does have these flaws, I find myself unable to dismiss it as easily as I thought I would, given its auspices. A large part of that credit goes to Cedric The Entertainer, who is an old pro at this sort of thing, thanks to his standup comedy and The Steve Harvey Show. Even when the material is somewhat bland—as it frequently is here—he knows how to play to a live audience and clearly enjoys himself in moments such as Boyce singing along to his greatest hits in his office. He’s able to sell the moments when Boyce looks up and asks God for a sign, which feel slightly obligatory but which he manages to make amusing and yet also somewhat poignant. It also helps that he has an appealing chemistry with Nash, who may be playing an archetype of sassy black woman but proved on Reno 911! that she’s immensely entertaining within that archetype. There’s a boisterous quality to their relationship, which helps the two sell some of their weaker dialogue. (“Do you think Paul McCartney sings his own songs when he’s alone in his house?” “I know he does! That was the longest dinner ever.”)
And the show also deserves credit for adding another notch on TV Land’s original programming belt, being the first of its shows with an entirely African-American cast. If the network is going to revive a particular type of sitcom, this is certainly one that deserves it, as it’s a genre that’s fallen through the cracks of contemporary programming save an occasional offering like BET’s Reed Between The Lines. All the show’s action revolves in some way around the church, typically the center of the community, be it Boyce bribing the church ladies to go to his wife’s salon or the episode’s closing featuring an uplifting choir. It doesn’t look like anything else on TV Land, or most offerings on regular TV, and there’s something both refreshing and encouraging about that.
Toward the end of the episode, Boyce stirs his congregation with a message of hope for his uncertain circumstances: “I know I’m flawed, but if you have faith in me, we’ll get there—together.” And I can’t help but think that’s Cedric’s message to the viewing public, and despite the rocky storytelling I also can’t help thinking The Soul Man might actually be able to get there. It’s not a particularly good show at the moment, still easily slotted in the same category as TV Land’s traditional bland fare, but it’s not distasteful in any way, and there’s enough charm to it that it might be worth a little faith.
- This is in no way the show’s fault, but the first establishing shot of St. Louis gave me PTSD flashbacks to Work It, which I am almost certain used the exact same stock footage.
- There’s a running joke throughout the episode that many of Boyce’s favorite things got “lost in the move,” according to Lolli. Amongst the missing items: his French snakeskin boots, his satin Wings tour jacket, and his lucky sweatpants with the tiger stripes.
- Obligatory joke that proves this is a show set in the present day. “This is happening, I tweeted it!” “Well I’m gonna retweet it, and I have more followers than you!”
- Token sexual innuendo to prove the show can be edgy: Lolli talks about how when men do chores, “something in our lady parts starts percolating.”
- Ballentine parenting: “This time we both play bad cops, and I’m talkin’ Training Day.”