Tyler Perry’s For Better Or Worse could be off the air in the span of five weeks. That’s not me wishing ill on the show, that’s just a fact. Perry’s deal with TBS, the network which is home to his other two sitcoms House Of Payne and Meet The Browns, is a ten-episode commitment to appear in two-episode blocks on Friday nights. If it falters, it’ll get pulled. The more likely scenario is that it performs to expectations, at which point TBS will immediately commit to another 90 episodes, ensuring syndication before the show has even completed what would be an initial order for a network series.
Whatever problems one has with Tyler Perry’s work, his business savvy is pretty much unassailable. Every business owner knows that it costs more money and requires more energy to attract a new customer than it does to wring more money out of the customers you already have. It is on this concept that Perry has built his impressive empire, by repackaging the same story and selling it again and again. His projects start as gospel stage plays, which are adapted into movies, and in some cases, adapted again into television series. For Better Or Worse is no exception, having its origins in the 2004 play Why Did I Get Married?, which was adapted into a 2007 film and a 2010 sequel. When the show gets its practically inevitable hundred-episode order, storm clouds will brew once again over Perryville Manor bringing with them torrents of money.
I wanted to say that all up front because the way in which Perry conducts his business is almost more interesting a discussion than attempting to engage his work in any kind of serious way, especially the sitcoms. Perry’s work is deeply problematic for me, especially watching it as a black man, when black males are the bogeyman of his bizarre, quasi- female empowerment fantasies, which manage to be both anti-male and anti-feminist. But I end up seeing nearly every one of Perry’s films, not because I’m a fan, but because they are, for black people, a cultural phenomenon that looms large enough to make personal interest irrelevant. I’m not a football fan, but I watch the Superbowl because that’s what people do. I’m not a Tyler Perry fan, but if he has a new movie out, a dozen people are going to ask me if I’ve seen it and want to discuss it with me, so my choices are to see it and be prepared to intelligently discuss it, or give an obnoxious speech about how I’m taking a principled stand against his work. In the latter case, I’ll still end up having a lengthy conversation about Perry’s work, except that it will be punctuated with the occasional “And I haven't seen the latest one, so maybe it’s different, but…” It’s just better for everyone if I bite the bullet.
I’ve mostly avoided Perry’s sitcoms, though, because they are essentially everything I hate about Perry’s sensibility but cheapened, both in writing quality and production value. There seems to be very little effort put in on every level, and when the show’s deal is structured around a sprint to syndication, it feels like a transparent cash grab. I don’t have to watch them because no one will ever ask me about them—a good chunk of the audience who sees the movies will never see the play or sitcom version because they lack the star power and the massive promotional push of a wide-release movie. I’ve watched some of House Of Payne and Meet The Browns. And by “watched some,” I mean taken small doses that usually top out at one or two acts, but never an entire episode. The writing is wretched and punny in a juvenile way, the acting is painful, the sets are cheap. From a strictly technical standpoint, there’s not a whole lot complimentary to say. Robert Bianco of USA Today went as far his House of Payne review as to call it one of the worst sitcoms of the modern era. He may honestly have a case.
While For Better Or Worse isn’t superior to the other sitcoms Perry has done, it is a bit different. The biggest issue with House Of Payne and Meet The Browns is the creepy tone created by an aggressive laugh track, unfunny juvenile jokes, and abrupt shifts into dark territory such as drug abuse and abortion. It’s clear that family-friendliness is of the utmost importance to Perry, as the humor is never something that would fly over the head of a 12-year-old, and kids play major roles on both. Sometimes watching those shows feels like watching a ‘90s-era Nickelodeon comedy that spends too much time on its adult characters. With For Better Or Worse, Perry is going for something closer to BET’s dramedies, The Game and Let’s Stay Together, and it does feel more “grown up” than his other shows.
The show’s leads are Michael Jai White and Tasha Smith, who reprise their characters Marcus and Angela Williams from the Why Did I Get Married? films. If Perry’s goal is to attract a more attractive demographic, he’s on the right track building a show around the young and attractive Marcus and Angela, rather than the old, eccentric Madea facsimiles that anchor his other shows. The Marcus and Angela of For Better Or Worse are different from their film counterparts though (and at this point, the show bears nearly zero resemblance to the play that spawned it.) In the films, salon owner Angela was shrill and cartoonishly combative, a violent, shit-talking loudmouth who took pleasure in emasculating sports anchor Marcus in front of their friends. But now Angela and Marcus are the leads, not ensemble players, Angela had to have some of her rough edges sanded down, and their relationship, explosive and tumultuous in the films, is far closer to wedded bliss.
Much like The Game, For Better Or Worse feels like a black telenovela, particularly considering the main plot engine is a love quadrilateral between Marcus, Angela, Keisha (Marcus’s baby mama) and Richard (Marcus’s new business partner and Keisha’s new boyfriend.) But it’s far less over the top, thanks in part to the absence of a laugh track (The Game could take a lesson), which has been replaced by jaunty incidental music. The music is an odd touch—instead of feeling like I was watching a drama with a laugh track as I do with The Game, with For Better Or Worse I felt like I was watching something that was envisioned as a single-camera series shot as a multi-camera because it was cheaper.
Where For Better Or Worse loses out to The Game is that it’s not funny. Ever. At all. The pilot, which Perry wrote and directed, demonstrates almost immediately his “fuck you, you’ll watch it anyway” approach to storytelling. Angela is trying to confront Marcus about behavior problems from his daughter from a previous relationship, but he’s in the shower. She’s trying to tell him about his daughter, but he hears “water” and replies “Oh the water is fine, this new purification system is great.” Angela then flushes a nearby toilet to force Marcus out of the shower by making the water temperature drop. Besides the fact that none of this is in the neighborhood of funny, the establishing shot shows that the couple lives in a mini-mansion that I’d guess has at least eight to ten bedrooms. And apparently they can afford to have a “purification system” installed in said luxury home, but the plumbing is such that flushing a toilet can drive someone out of the shower. There’s just no thought put into any of it.
I love reading reviews of Tyler Perry’s work because I love seeing the different ways in which critics write what always amounts to “If you like Tyler Perry things generally, there’s nothing to suggest that you won’t also like this Tyler Perry thing.” But gosh, what else is there really to say?
- Bobb’e J. Thompson is in this, and I’m sort of obsessed with him, but I’m still not going to watch anymore of this.