Friday, October 16, 2015

Pilot Review: Truth Be Told

Truth Be Told (Fridays at 8:30 on NBC)

Truth Be Told would have been a really edgy comedy in the 1980s, when TV's most successful sitcoms were The Cosby Show, Who's the Boss, Family Ties, and The Facts of Life. But in a television landscape that has recently tackled issues of race, gender, sexuality, and the political intersection of all these cocnepts to great success (black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Modern Family, Jane the Virgin), Truth Be Told feels forced and dated.

The bare-bones premise concerns two suburban married couples who are also neighbors and best friends: Mitch (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), a white ethics professor, and Tracy (Vanessa Lachey), a mixed-race lawyer; and black couple Russell (Tone Bell), a stand-up comedian, and Angie (Bresha Webb), a doctor. They hang out and stereotype people... and that's about it. The pilot sees Mitch and Tracy trying to find a babysitter for their four year-old daughter so the friends can all go to a Jay-Z concert, but the woman they ultimately settle on turns out to be a porn star.

There's not much plot happening with Truth Be Told, and even NBC's press materials stress the fact that the conversations these four characters have are what really define the show as being about "a wildly outspoken group" who "can't help but analyze and obsess about everything... from sex and race to anything else your parents told you never to talk about." I wouldn't exactly call that an accurate description of Truth Be Told, however, because there doesn't seem to be any real "analyzing" going on with any of these people. Unless by "analysis" you mean making old-hat observations about how white people can't say the N word ("It's a word you just don't have access to," Russell explains to Mitch, who was about to say the word as he was singing along to a Jay Z song.) or about how Asians and Latinas are fetishized by white men. These aren't things we haven't heard before and in much funnier, edgier situations (in fact, black-ish did a whole episode a couple weeks ago about the use of the N word). Creator DJ Nash (Growing Up Fisher) doesn't really have an ear for truly controversial or unique perspectives on race relations, which would have made Truth Be Told stand out more. Instead, there's conversations about whether or not the take-out lady at a Chinese restaurant is faking her accent and jokes about how only white people listen to John Mayer (but it's funny because it turns out Angie likes him too!). There's room for serious topics to be explored comically, but Nash isn't up to the task. Instead, it seems he thinks the very idea of a white guy and a black guy being friends is enough to make a comedy out of. (It's not.)

It's a shame that he saddles such a likable cast with his mundane material. Gosselaar proved with Franklin & Bash that he was an able comedian, and Bell can make almost anything funny (see: Bad Judge), but they get precious little to work with, especially Gosselaar. He gets the worst of the material, from the embarrassing N word scene to an uncomfortable scene where he's worried that having a white/Asian wife and finding the "ethnically ambiguous features" of his babysitter attractive will make it seems like he has some kind of... I don't know, non-white fetish? It's a bizarre, unfunny scene that made me cringe and look away with semi-mortification. Bell doesn't look quite so bad, despite being given a tired jealous husband storyline, but it's clear he doesn't really know who his character is supposed to be. Lachey and Webb escape relatively unscathed as well, but that's mostly because they're barely present thus far.

There is an interesting question at the root of Truth Be Told, however, about how and why we stereotype people. If it were to be a comedic exploration of upending those stereotypes, rather than just pointing out that they exist, it would be a much better show. And despite all these complaints, it's still not the worst new comedy or the season or even the worst comedy on Friday nights (both of those dubious distinctions go to ABC's Dr. Ken). It's totally banal at times, but there is a nice chemistry between Gosselaar and Bell (even though they don't get to do anything all that funny to make it shine), and the content is actually pretty inoffensive. Though NBC wants you to believe that Truth Be Told is going to be controversial and buzzworthy, it's actually the opposite: blandly vanilla.

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