Bless this Mess: A Review of The Soul Man
- Tuesday, August 07, 2012
Can faith be funny? In our nihilistic entertainment culture where the few remaining sacred cows are merely target practice (except that of permissive lifestyles), a series set in among a group of believers sounds like a queasy proposition. Quick, name three successful series set in a church community. I can name only two. NBC's comedy, Amen! (1986-1991) starred The Jeffersons' Sherman Helmsley in his feisty Bantam rooster persona as a deacon at a black church stirring up things for his daughter and the church's pastor.
The other is 7th Heaven, which ran for 11 seasons on the WB and CW networks and featured the Rev. Camden (Stephen Collins) and his family and his pastoring the Glen Oak Community Church. Though at least once identified with the Disciples of Christ denomination, the show rarely stressed theological specifics, emphasizing rather a generic, pro-social family dynamic that touched on various topics through the family members' lives. In both series, the emphasis was on the individual characters working through comedic or dramatic challenges in the weekly interactions amongst themselves rather than much in the way of prayer, God talk or other devotional behavior.
We don't see church life on television more often for several reasons: Hollywood folks aren't known to share the same religious practices as millions of Americans who attend tradiotional churches on a regular basis and it's simply easier to do another cop show or another comedy about a group of horny singles. Also, networks have always been shy of bringing religion into the mix of entertainment content; believers fight enough between each other over subjects both weighty and petty, so why jump into that pool of potential controversy?
Episodes that involve specific practices of a given denomination or group risks alienating viewers who either don't understand that practice or feel excluded because they may disagree with its particular details. Also, frankly, many Protestant groups are not easy to capture in a visual medium. Ministers in business suits tend to blend in as characters rather than stand out. Catholic priests and churches tend to garner more attention both because of their vestments and other visual distinctives that so clearly identify the church. You also see black churches more frequently on television than your average Protestant or evangelical church because of the joyful nature of black gospel worship is appealing to even non-believing audience members.
TVLand's newest sitcom seems mindful of these distinctives and has brought in The Soul Man as a summer series. It stars Cedric the Entertainer as Reverend Boyce ("The Voice") Ballentine, an R& B singer who has left his successful and glitzy career to take over his father's church. He'd begun seminary studies years before but his singing career pulled him away from his earlier calling. His wife Lolli seems to have brought a lot of Vegas style with her and dresses as no pastor's wife I've ever seen with plunging necklines and gorgeous do's (she runs a beauty salon). Played by Niecy Nash, she seems delighted to have retired the deputy sheriff's uniform she wore on Reno 911.
They have a teen-age daughter, Lyric (Jazz Raycole) who mainly does walk-ons as a typical sitcom kid. Most domestic sitcoms need an instigator character who can stir the plot pot and the show has at least tw Boyce's younger brother Stamps (Wesley Jonathan), an unemployed, but charming, scoundrel in the making, and Boyce's father, the Rev. Barton Ballentine, an old-school straight shooter who is so critical of Boyce's more laid-back style that one wonders why he let his son take the reins in the first place.
In the second episode, one of Boyce's parishioners comes in for counseling. He's been unemployed for weeks and feels like he's about to start drinking again. Barton asks to sit in on the session and within a minute he's started overriding Boyce with his more stern counseling and soon father and son are fighting over their respective counseling styles, yelling "Stop it!" and "No, you stop it!" Before long, the man leaves in confusion and winds up in a bar where the two pastors come to try again. Boyce reminds him that the Lord is his higher power and his wife and God are his support group, but the senior Ballentine tells him to simply man up and refuse temptation. He pours the man a shot of whisky and tells him this is the moment of truth but Boyce swigs it so the man won't succumb, and the next and the next glass until, yes, he gets drunk and the man decides he can make it without a drink.
The women of the church come across as meddling and backbiting busybodies. Trying to make a good impression, Boyce asks Lolli to put some pantyhose on for church. Consenting, Lolli responds, "Lord knows I hate panty hose but those church ladies, they want panty hose. They can't take these legs."
The above examples demonstrate how hard it is to find good examples of funny gags on the show. Though "filmed in front of a live studio audience" (even the exterior scene in front of the church?), it was hard to tell why there was laughter, so flat were the jokes. Now and then, Boyce will look up and offer conversational prayers to God a la Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, but of course they are intended mainly for laughs as well.
The writers seem acquainted with actual pastoral situations and there's even scripture quoted and applied when Barton rebukes Boyce for paying for two non-members to join the church's gospel singing team to win a choir competition, quoting Mark 8:36. And Boyce's ministerial attitude is genuine so it's a little startling when he switches from comedy to actual pastoral concern, usually near the end of the episode. Pulling off serious content to balance the humor isn't easy in a comedy and though apparently sincere, the lack of real jokes doesn't make it any easier. Sadly, rather than being a refreshing experience, The Soul Man is mainly old jokes in old sitcom wineskins
*This Review First Published 8/7/2012
**Watch Soul Man Wednesdays on TVLand.
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