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TV Review: Jay Pharoah In 'White Famous'


A new comedy premieres Sunday on Showtime called "White Famous." It's the story of a black performer's struggle to succeed in Hollywood. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans reviews an exploration of race in Hollywood.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The biggest problem with the first episode of "White Famous" is how often it follows something really smart with something really dumb. A scene delivers something insightful and compelling, then veers into a territory so boneheaded you want to change the channel. The story's pretty simple. "Saturday Night Live" alum Jay Pharoah plays Floyd Mooney, an African-American comic popular in black clubs looking for a TV show or movie that will bring him greater fame. His agent explains it during a lunch meeting.


UTKARSH AMBUDKAR: (As Malcolm) The goal has always been white famous.

JAY PHAROAH: (As Floyd Mooney) Why do I have to be white famous?

AMBUDKAR: (As Malcolm) Don't you want to be so famous that you transcend color? Obama, Tiger Woods, Will Smith.

DEGGANS: That's Will Smith before he married Jada, as the agent points out. Floyd winds up dealing with a lot of insane white Hollywood powerbrokers who have no clue about black people or black culture, like a top comedy film director who seems similar to real life director-producer Judd Apatow. He tries to avoid saying the word black while trying to convince Floyd to play a woman in the movie.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You do know there's a fine tradition of Blafrican (ph) American - I'm sorry. I don't know why I keep saying that.

PHAROAH: (As Floyd Mooney) Oh, it's cool, man. It's just 'cause you're racist. Not like KKK racist, more like well-meaning west of the 405 racist. But hey, it's fine - just kidding, not really. Continue.

DEGGANS: This would be an awesome moment if it wasn't followed by a horrifying riff from Floyd about how we should all be over the Bill Cosby scandal by now. Just as allegations about sexual harassment by film mogul Harvey Weinstein have turned Hollywood upside down, "White Famous" shows a fictional bullying sex-obsessed producer trying to bury allegations that he's a racist. The producer, played by Stephen Tobolowsky, offers Floyd a part in a big movie.


STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY: (As Stu Beggs) I need something to show the world that I'm not some racist creeper. And you need not to pass on the opportunity of a lifetime. Look. I don't have a head for math, but this much I know. If you've got a baby mama, I think that means you have a baby. You don't do it for me. You do it for your mama's baby.

PHAROAH: (As Floyd Mooney) I am my mama's baby.

DEGGANS: This scene would have been a perfect illustration of how Hollywood bullies evade responsibility through their wealth and power, but it also included loads of unfunny sexist jokes about Floyd's former girlfriend. Executive producer Jamie Foxx has a nutty cameo as the star of the film that Floyd's up for. It hints that Foxx might have a fetish for wearing dresses. That, I can't even play a clip from.

There's also good stuff here. Turns out, Jay Pharoah's an engaging actor when he's not doing impressions of Denzel or Cosby. And the first episode's central tension, whether Floyd will put on a dress to win a big part, mirrors an issue that Foxx faced on "In Living Color" and Pharoah confronted when he was on "Saturday Night Live." Floyd and his girlfriend Sadie sum up the two sides here.


CLEOPATRA COLEMAN: (As Sadie) You should totally put a dress on for Jamie Foxx. Hell, I'd take my dress off for Jamie Foxx.

PHAROAH: (As Floyd Mooney) It's just that thing. Every time there's a funny black brother in Hollywood, they try to emasculate him. I know this might sound corny, but I don't want to sell out.

DEGGANS: Floyd's struggle to stay authentic in an industry controlled by people who mostly want to exploit him and his culture speaks to a lot of issues in America. And the next two episodes of "White Famous" are much better, giving Pharoah and his supporting cast room to shine. Like its star, "White Famous" has a lot of potential, but it has to stop going for shocking easy laughs and focus on the smart human story at its core.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUSHOU.'S "RAIN.DANCE.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.