Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s Reed Between the Lines: Probably Not the Next Cosby Show

After checking out the two-episode premiere of BET’s new sitcom Reed Between the Lines last night, I stuck around to watch its star, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, on The Wendy Williams Show (TWWS was better than expected. The best illustration of the tone of her show is a bit where Wendy jiggered her wig back to show her widow’s peak). Wendy asked Theo if the actors who play his kids on Reed were well versed on The Cosby Show, and he said yes, and added that Reed‘s similarities to Cosby were no coincidence. Of course, if you saw any of the promotional footage for Reed (above), you already knew that.

If you grew up with The Cosby Show, this clip is a fun little piece of nostalgia: You have the whole Huxtable living-room set, complete with a swinging door to the kitchen, stairs leading to the second floor, and the trusty three-cushion sofa as the centerpiece. Now throw an iPad on the table, give someone a BlackBerry, Photoshop in a grown-up Theo, and you have the look of a Cosby Show for the Facebook generation. You can almost smell Theo’s famous chili vegan tofu spinach wrap cooking in the kitchen.

But Reed‘s hewing so close to the aesthetics of the old show makes its shortcomings all the more clear:

1. No Bill Cosby. You’re asking Theo, er, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, to convey the charm and charisma of a comedy legend? No offense to the def poet, but good luck with that.

2. No Phylicia Rashad. You need Tracee Ellis Ross to convey the confident swagger and maternal gravitas of a stage legend dubbed nothing less than mother of the African-American community? Good luck with that.

3. No original material. The first couple seasons of The Cosby Show had a healthy supply of material already field-tested in Cosby’s standup act (Bill Cosby: Himself and Season 1 of The Cosby Show are a nice [pre-Louie] course on converting standup into a sitcom). So essentially the writers need to reinvent the wheel of black family comedy, a wheel Cosby invented. Good luck with that.

4. You need to do all of the above in the shadow of the old show. Between grown-up Theo and the set with the same couch, this is way beyond inviting comparisons. This is like a rookie demanding to wear No. 23 for the Bulls. Good luck with that.

In addition, TV has evolved since the late eighties and early nineties. Pardon the offshoot pun, but it’s a different world now. When The Cosby Show debuted in 1984, there was a huge need for a TV window into the lives of the black middle class. Every Thursday night, mainstream audiences got to say, “Look, black people have #firstworldproblems too!” But this was before The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Modern Family, and every other satirical network TV show premised around spoofing these same privileged-American values. These days, no one has a window into the lives of the middle class because the middle class is dead. But for a black show to catch fire like that now, it needs to be less invested in yesterday’s race war and more in today’s class war. We don’t want to see Theo all grown up — we want to see him all grown up and occupying Wall Street.

On the matter of “black sitcoms,” we haven’t had anything rival the impact of The Cosby Show, a ratings juggernaut that was Illmatic, Star Wars, and American Idol all in one raise of Clair Huxtable’s eyebrow. Warner talks about wanting to capture the universality of The Cosby Show. But the writing felt timid for a post-Tracy Jordan world, the jokes were way too broad (a big payoff in the second episode hinged on the teen daughter keeping a secret about slow dancing with someone at school). As they say, the show deserves some time to find its individual voice, but The Cosby Show had the Cos, and Reed Between the Lines lacks that first-world comedy luxury.

Patrice Evans is a Grantland staff writer. Portions of the above post appear in his (excellent) book Negropedia: The Assimilated Negro’s Crash Course on the Modern Black Experience. For more on TAN and his book, check out his Q&A with The New Yorker.