Black and Famous but Out to Pasture
By JON CARAMANICA
Published: January 14, 2013
Early in the premiere of “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” the comedian Kevin Hart shows up for an afternoon party at a huge Los Angeles home where the grill is being tended by Nick Cannon, the actor, comedian and husband of Mariah Carey.
Mr. Hart is impressed, and agitated.
“Where she get this house?” he says, referring to Ms. Carey. “I ain’t know she had this house.”
Mr. Cannon, wearing an “I ♥ Mimi” apron, is peeved. “First off, this is my house,” he snaps. “I bought this house before I got married to Mariah.”
Mr. Cannon is famous too. Or was. That’s part of the implicit conceit of this clever sitcom starting Tuesday on BET — part scripted and part improvised — in which all of the stars play lightly parodic versions of themselves. In addition to Mr. Hart and Mr. Cannon the show features Boris Kodjoe, Duane Martin and J B Smoove, black actors with drawing power but who on this show are presented as do-nothing spouses with oodles of idle time.
“Real Husbands” purports to be a gender-flipped satire of reality-TV new-money battles royale, the sort that feature would-be socialites. But it’s actually a far more subtle commentary on the death of the black male romantic lead, a reminder of the limited options for black actors on television.
At different points each of these actors has been a leading man in television or film. Mr. Kodjoe, a former model, was a star of the TV series “Soul Food” and of the short-lived “Undercovers,” a rare network show with a black couple in the lead. Mr. Martin was a star of the sitcom “All of Us.” Mr. Cannon was the star of the film “Drumline” and of several TV shows for young people.
Those days are gone. The age of black sitcoms and dramas is largely over, replaced instead with token diversity. While that may mean high times for black character actors, traditional leading men are getting the short end of the stick.
Hence “Real Husbands” as commentary: Here are well-regarded actors reduced to parody, and reduced to sharing the air, on a show that is a satire of emasculation. Mr. Hart, the protagonist — he is also one of the executive producers — is whiny and unappealing, which is the point. Of all the stars he’s meant to be the one with the biggest current fame, the one still on the rise. But at every turn he gets his comeuppance, whether by Mr. Cannon’s nephew, who beats him up, or by Robin Thicke, who socially undermines him.
The most romantically appealing character is Mr. Thicke, the soul singer, who is white, another comment on the diminished potency of black male leads.
The “Real Husbands” theme first appeared during the 2011 BET Awards, in a series of interstitial shorts that starred an excitable Mr. Hart along with Mr. Cannon, the rapper Nelly and Bobby Brown, who played the paterfamilias with dry senility. (“I started this househusband thing, you know,” Mr. Brown says in the first short. “I was the first one to land me one of the big fish.”) In 2012 they returned, this time with Mr. Hart waging war against Samuel L. Jackson, who takes over Mr. Hart’s home.
Those sketches were funnier, at least partly because they were so unexpected, but also because they were much closer to the peak reality-TV moments they were parodying. But now that that phenomenon seems to be receding somewhat, “Real Husbands” makes the most sense when read against the almost total vacuum of black male lead characters on network and cable television, especially romantic leads, a vacuum made all the more glaring by the rise of dramas with black female leads like “Scandal” on ABC and now “Deception” on NBC.
Instead, on the broadcast networks black men are often relegated to sidekick status — think of Lamorne Morris’s Winston on “New Girl” — creating a panoply of diverse faces in roles that don’t threaten the racial dynamics of their shows. The closest to a lead is Damon Wayans Jr. as Brad on “Happy Endings,” though this season he’s lost his job and become increasingly disempowered, going from being the most potent black male character in prime time to one of the dullest.
The situation is better on cable than on the networks, of course — there’s Don Cheadle on “House of Lies,” for example — but not much. And there are plenty of shows with no black characters of note at all.
Still, Mr. Wayans, a son of a Wayans brother (of “In Living Color”) is more effective than the junior-league members of his extended family on “Second Generation Wayans,” which has its premiere after “Real Husbands” and stars two of his cousins, Damien Dante Wayans and Craig Wayans.
“Second Generation” is a show about the futility of coming close to success but not quite sticking the landing, based in part on Damien and Craig’s own Hollywood misadventures. The Wayans name is a door opener, but it’s also an albatross that prevents the family’s younger talents from being appreciated on their own merits, the show argues. It also reflects a generational shift. In the 1990s, when their first generation was succeeding, networks were more concerned with making black-themed television.
But that interest has waned, leaving the field to Tyler Perry and BET. The younger Wayans may be talented — Craig in particular exudes an appealing pathos, an implied eye roll about this whole venture that gives the show some gravity — but they arrived at the wrong time.
There is one young show, though, that has recently gone out of its way to put black male sexuality on display. Two minutes into the season premiere of “Girls” on Sunday night Lena Dunham is depicted in intense, sweaty commingling with Donald Glover, who even in his role as the group’s jock on “Community” has never been painted as a heartthrob. (Based on subsequent episodes the relationship appears to have an expiration date.)
Ms. Dunham, who was derided during her show’s first season for her monochromatic casting, may just be answering her critics here, or tweaking them. Even if that’s the case, in so doing she’s also highlighted what’s missing all around her and issued a challenge to everyone to keep up.