tv review

White Famous Is a Stale, Pandering Look at Hollywood

Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime.

The timing of White Famous could not be worse. This star vehicle for Jay Pharoah about an ambitious, young African-American comedian and wannabe film star would have seemed half-baked, pandering, and trashy no matter when it premiered. But its debut on the heels of the Harvey Weinstein scandal makes its worst bits feel less like provocations than insults. This new Showtime comedy is a showbiz-kinda satire in an Entourage vein. It charts the progress of Pharoah’s Floyd Mooney as he tries to become “white famous” — i.e. so famous that his celebrity “transcends race,” according to his agent Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar) — while holding onto his artistic integrity and not allowing himself to be, in his words, “emasculated,” as a black man or as a man, period.

Although it would be unfair to say that the show never questions Floyd’s worldview or assumptions, the questioning is never strong enough to overcome the feeling that White Famous is pulling its punches. While it scores a few sharp jabs against the ingrained racism of Hollywood’s power structure, it seems afraid of complicating the audience’s presumably positive feelings about Floyd by calling out his entitled, macho attitude toward women, including his ex-partner Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman), a backup singer and the mother of his son Trevor (Lonnie Chavis). Equally annoying is how the show itself (like Entourage before it) codes fundamentally shitty behavior, like continual race- and ethnicity-baiting trash talk between male actors, comedians, agents, and other showbiz types, as daringly “incorrect,” hilarious, liberating, and even awesome. White Famous also seems to know that there’s a strong wish-fulfillment thing happening between Floyd and its probable target audience, a rainbow coalition of straight guys, and it doesn’t want to disturb that universe. It’s a perfect storm of status-quo timidity.

The show opens with Floyd killing it during a stand-up comedy performance. The next scene starts with an overhead shot of Floyd and some anonymous young woman sleeping in his bed post-coitus the following morning: Floyd has boxers on, but the woman is naked, and the shot is held long enough to give the audience a nice long look at her ass. Then, Floyd’s roommate and best friend, a post-office employee named Ron Balls (Jacob Ming-Trent), pokes his head into the room to wake Floyd up and takes a moment to check out the conquest’s ass; the show gives us a close-up of said ass from Ron’s point-of-view, then closes out the scene with a breast shot as Floyd’s guest lets him know that she’s ready for another go-round. This entire scene is an example of what a friend of mine dubbed “movie star heterosexuality insurance” — a quick scene at the start of a movie meant to immediately establish (a) that the hero is straight; (b) that he’s such a ladies man that he not only has one-night stands with women, but with Playboy Playmate bodies; (c) that it’s such a common occurrence that he’s surprised to realize that he’s done it again; and (d) he’s such a fantastic lover that his pickup can’t get enough of him.

Floyd meets with a powerful but nebbishy white comedy director (seemingly modeled on Judd Apatow, based on how the character is described) about acting in his new film, which stars Jamie Foxx as a lawyer representing “the first woman Bill Cosby ever drugged and molested.” Floyd turns the job down when he finds out he won’t be playing the lawyer, but the accuser. His objection isn’t to the concept, which of course is tasteless on its face, but to the fact that he’d be doing drag, and he promised his pop he’d never “let those white Hollywood motherfuckers put you in a dress.” He also asks the director, “Aren’t we a little done with the whole Cosby pile-on? I mean, I wouldn’t want the motherfucker to be my anesthesiologist, but aren’t we sick of the outrage, just a little bit?”

Then Floyd has a chance encounter outside a restaurant with a producer (Stephen Tobolowsky, in one of the more thankless roles he’s ever had) who mistakes Floyd for a parking attendant and tries to justify it by spewing a lot of obliviously racist rich-white-guy stuff, which Floyd’s pal catches on video and then uploads, turning Floyd into a viral video sensation and causing the producer — coincidentally the same one working on the Bill Cosby “comedy” — to promise him a supporting role. This in turn sets up a meeting with Foxx, who is introduced lying flat on his back on the floor of his trailer as another anonymous naked woman grinds on him; the camera makes sure to give us plentiful front and rear views of the grinding. After he finishes and she dismounts, the camera angle on Floyd includes an opened door to an adjacent room, where the woman, still naked, lounges on a bed in the background.

This is all just in the first episode. There’s a lot of more of this. Floyd repeatedly refuses to accept that a “no” from his ex actually means “no,” and the series makes it seem as if he’s correct not to accept her “no” because she sometimes says “yes” and clearly still hot for him. (“You got a confusing vagina” he tells her.) Pay attention to the way he grabs at her top in their first scene together after dropping off their son, and how he walks into her house uninvited in the second episode and watches her dancing and undressing in a robe. “You can’t just walk in here whenever you want,” she says. “I can when you leave the front door unlocked,” he responds. “You’re practically begging to get molested.”

Later, Floyd meets with a gifted but arrogant and perverse actor-director (played by Michael Rapaport, but seemingly modeled on both Mel Gibson and Quentin Tarantino) who tricks him into thinking that his own daughter is trying to seduce Floyd when it’s really the actress playing his daughter in the upcoming project. The director gets huffy when he realizes the actress is genuinely attracted to Floyd (of course she is; every woman on this show treats Floyd as catnip). “We’re not gonna be sleeping together on this project,” the director assures her, “but I don’t want you to make me feel like it’s out of my reach.”

I don’t know how it’s possible to make any of this stuff truly funny, or even tolerable, unless you go super-bleak — I mean Todd Solondz bleak — and make Floyd and all of the other sleazy guy characters pathetic rather than amusing and/or lovable, then make sure all of the other characters playing in scenes with them are actually characters and not obstacles standing between them and their goals. That’s not something White Famous is inclined to do — not that it would be capable of such a thing, based on available evidence. Even its bits about race and racism are weak. For every line that lands, such as Tobolowsky defending himself against charges of racism by declaring, “I am working with Jamie fucking Foxx right now, and he’s black as the ace of spades,” there are many more that are about as sophisticated as the kind of “observational” stand-up parodied by The Simpsons over two decades ago.

I dove into the first episode of White Famous without reading the press kit, and halfway through made the following note to myself: “Like Californication, this show practically demands that you accept a misogynist, alpha-male asshole as a hero, and undercuts any criticism of him by constantly insisting that he’s the coolest, funniest, sexiest, most relatable person onscreen.” Lo and behold, the show is created, written, and directed by Californication’s mastermind, Tom Kapinos, and co–executive produced and occasionally co-directed by Jamie Foxx, who plays himself in the pilot and reportedly supplied a lot of suggestions for story lines and gags.

The show carries itself as a blast of revelatory fresh air. But everything about it is stale, including the scene where Jamie Foxx — who is into dresses, is responsible for the whole drag idea, and puts on a cheerleader skirt after sex — intimidates Floyd by leaning way back in a chair and spreading his legs, a bit that the finale of The Larry Sanders Show, which guest-starred none other than Calfornication star David Duchovny, did much better almost 20 years ago. It’s a shame, because the misadventures of a gifted young black man in Hollywood is a promising subject for a TV comedy. If this show fails, as it so richly deserves to, it’ll be that much harder to make another, better show in the same vein. After all, Hollywood is filled with characters like Tobolowsky’s producer, who thinks all you have to do to inoculate yourself against charges of racism is to make a movie with Jamie Foxx.

White Famous Is a Stale, Pandering Look at Hollywood