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Jay Pharoah may have rebounded nicely from his Saturday Night Live firing last year with a starring role in his own comedy when he landed the lead in Showtime's new show, White Famous, but this bland series doesn't seem to be the best use of his (or anyone else's) talents. While Pharoah clearly has the right energy to lead a series (especially one about an up and coming comedian) the show is so bogged down in how difficult it can be to rise through the ranks in Hollywood as a black man, that most of his interactions with power players are stagnant and overwrought when they should be enlightening and amusing.
In White Famous, Jay Pharoah plays stand up comedian Floyd Mooney, and he's clearly been working at his act for a while if his shiny new BMW is any indication. Floyd has a hotshot agent, Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who wants to see his successful client go to the next level and be able to get out of the tiny comedy clubs (with largely African-American audiences) that have helped Floyd hone his material. When a meeting with a director who's considering Floyd for a part in his new comedy goes sideways, though, Floyd has to decide if he's willing to do what (appears to be) necessary to start really climbing the ladder.
To Malcolm, the goal was always to get Floyd to a level where he's "white famous," i.e., so famous that he "transcends color" as Malcolm puts it, but Floyd isn't sold on the idea that reaching for it is worth the cost. When Floyd gets involved in a racially charged situation with big shot producer Stu Beggs (Stephen Tobolowsky) that goes viral and is presented with a bigger opportunity, though, he's forced to think about what white famous-level money (and not touring so much) could add to the life of his young son, Trevor (Lonnie Chavis).
White Famous, which comes from creator Tom Kapinos (Californication, Lucifer) and is executive produced by Kapinos, Tim Story (Fantastic Four, Ride Along) and Jamie Foxx, was clearly going to deal with what it's like to be black in the entertainment industry, but the show can't seem to figure out how to strike the right notes when issues of race and how Floyd is perceived come up. Part of the issue in the one episode I was able to preview was that I couldn't truly tell when Floyd was genuinely offended, just joking about being offended or actually offended but using humor to try to defuse the situation. I feel like, in order for the audience to really get behind Floyd in these instances, we need to absolutely know where he stands and it isn't always clear.
Another issue I had with White Famous, and this is a biggie, is that I didn't really find it funny. Even if you go into the show without the expectation that you'll be laughing out loud every minute, I think most will find that it doesn't bring the laughs (or just basic, feel-good enjoyment) the way a comedy really should. With the notable exceptions of Jay Pharoah's Denzel Washington impression and someone mistakenly saying "Blafrican-American" a couple of times right after he's professed to never use the word "black" to refer to people, I never had an honest moment of hilarity from the show. There's even an extended cameo from Jamie Foxx, which was clearly supposed to be so crazy that you'd LOL non-stop, but I just found it sort of embarrassing for all involved. Where I was expecting Curb Your Enthusiasm levels of cringe-worthy laughs, I generally just got cringes.
This is not, however, to say that everything about White Famous is off. All of the main performances are actually really good, considering what the actors are given. Jay Pharoah does solid work as a man who's pretty comfortable with his position in the entertainment business and doesn't understand why being white famous is such a big deal. Utkarsh Ambudkar (The Mindy Project) is perfectly slick as the agent who's hoping to get more (money) out of his client's career, but also really believes that Floyd is selling himself short. Cleopatra Coleman (The Last Man on Earth) is wonderfully supportive as Floyd's sorta ex-girlfriend and son's mother, Sadie, who knows that if his career stays where it is he may end up being unfulfilled. Last, but certainly not least, Lonnie Chavis (This Is Us) is one to watch as Floyd's son, Trevor.
If the quality of the conflicts in White Famous begin to rise to the level of the performances, it's possible that this might become a show that leads to Jay Pharoah having his own white famous fame, but it looks like it will be awhile before that happens. The two-episode White Famous premiere hits Showtime this Sunday, October 15, at 10 p.m.