ABC and then Netflix have attempted to build a multicamera comedy to see if Joseph (“Rev Run”) Simmons and Justine Simmons are sitcom stars. Unfortunately, they are not.
Few in Hollywood would argue that the broadcast television pilot process is a mess. Every spring, networks throw tens of millions of dollars into prototypes for shows they know with certainty will never air. And every spring, no doubt several good pilots die unceremonious deaths and multiple awful pilots somehow get sent to series, making us wonder just how bad the things that were rejected must have been.
In that respect, maybe Netflix has decided to perform an odd public service as part of its recent trend in snagging failed broadcast pilots from the scrapheap and giving them the chance to see the light of day. How, some people wondered, did The CW not order Insatiable to series when the pilot seemed to have a lot of buzz? Thanks to Netflix, we now know that Insatiable was satirically misguided, tonally imbalanced and generally unbearable. The CW didn’t need a full season to know that Insatiable was a blunder and neither will many viewers, but it’s always illuminating to see something the network behind The Outpost thought was too unsightly to air.
Nothing so dramatic can be proven by watching the new comedy All About the Washingtons, which was originally developed at ABC before finding its way to Netflix. An attempt to harness the personal chemistry of Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons and wife Justine, only in a scripted sitcom form, All About the Washingtons probably should have just been an “Oops, but we tried!” failed experiment. Instead, thanks to Netflix, it has become a flat, lackluster dud given a full season to prove very conclusively that being a great reality TV personality isn’t the same as being an actor.
Joseph and Justine Simmons, who starred together for six seasons on MTV’s Run’s House, are now the Washingtons, Joey and Justine. Joey has had a Grammy-winning run on the stage as MC Joe Speed and, plagued by exhaustion, he finally decides it’s time to retire to a palatial sitcom abode set featuring an indoor basketball court and a recording studio. Justine is excited because having Joey at home means she can now become an entrepreneur pushing a line of bejeweled beverage tops she calls the Hip-Hop Sip-Stop. Joey’s four kids — twenty-something Veronica (Kiana Lede), aspiring rapper Wes (Nathan Anderson), brilliant Skyler (Leah Rose Randall) and Deavon (Maceo Smedley), whom the writers have forgotten to give a discernible personality type — are less sure how to react to having their famous father around all the time, especially since his parenting style is somewhat different from what they grew up with under Justine.
Jeremy Bronson (The Mayor) created All About the Washingtons in its original ABC incarnation with Andrew Reich (Friends) steering the ship for Netflix. The resulting series feels watered down even by the standards of family-friendly multicamera sitcoms. The most engaged of episodic plotlines involve the flimsiest of farce — Justine wants to use a restaurant opening as a networking opportunity without her husband, but Joey wants dumplings so he attends on the sly! — and most don’t even aspire that high. There’s an installment in which the B-story has Deavon wanting to change his middle name to “Dracula” and Wes tricks him into thinking he changed his first name to “Dracula” and…that’s pretty much it. There’s another in which Wes asks Veronica to do the hook for a demo and people like her more than him and he briefly pouts and… that’s pretty much it. There are ongoing serialized arcs about the home-schooled Skyler’s desire to go to a normal private school and about Veronica’s boyfriend Malik (Quincy Fouse).
As befits a show probably aimed at the youngest of demos, most All About the Washingtonsepisodes offer a quick complication, a handful of dad jokes and a hasty family-centric resolution. In the six episodes I watched, those dad jokes earned a couple admiring cringes, but basically no earned laughs. The studio audience, or laugh track, since the show doesn’t proudly boast about live taping, is reasonably restrained, either because Netflix didn’t want to accentuate the worst aspects of the format or because the audience recognizes nothing here is really all that funny.
The fault starts at the top, with writing that lacks any real perspective or insight — but equally with the two leads. Rev Run has unquestionable enthusiasm without any variation in tone or delivery. He at least sounds natural, compared to Justine who seems to be reading every line off of a card. It feels cruel to criticize Joseph and Justine Simmons for not being sitcom stars when this is a very specific and difficult skill they’re attempting to back into as a third or possibly fourth career and they don’t deserve blame for the writers not knowing how to tap into the real-life chemistry on display in Run’s House, presumably the chemistry that made ABC think this was a good idea in the first place. The leads are professionals at several other things. They’re not professionals at the thing the show wants them to do.
Because they are pros, the Washington kids are better. If I laughed at all at All About the Washingtons, it was at Randall’s precocious nerdiness or at several line readings from Lede. Anderson (son of Black-ish star Anthony) and Smedley are also OK, though the two Washington daughters are much more thoroughly sketched than the sons. The first episode, presumably still under the ABC purview, features Tim Meadows and Shark Tank breakout Daymond John as guest stars. Later episodes include Arsenio Hall playing himself with consummate professionalism.
Although the show featuring the kids and Hall is better than the Joey and Justine show, no character or plotline ever made me say, “Man, I wish THAT was the show.” No, the show is built exclusively on the idea that people who are funny in reality can be made to be fictionally funny. In this case, they cannot. It’s not an offensive failure. It’s just the sort of failure audiences have grown to trust the pilot process to weed out.
Cast: Joseph Simmons, Justine Simmons, Kiana Ledé, Nathan Anderson, Leah Rose Randall, Maceo Smedley