Everybody Hates Chris: The Third Season came out recently and having never seen a full episode of the series until I reviewed the second season about a year ago, I was hoping it would be more than a generic family based situation comedy (sit-com). Luckily, it was thanks in large part to the way the show was inspired by the brilliant comedian, Chris Rock. For those of you living underneath a rock the last 15 years, Chris is well known for his time on the Saturday Night Live show as well as a number of films that showed his ability to make people laugh at almost anything. Like a great many comedians over the years, Rock's ability to make light of everyday events, boosting the comedic value by use of embellishments as well as taking things we can all identify with to their logical extremes.
I was initially unaware the Rock was not physically in the show, providing the voice-overs for the series instead; much like Daniel Stern did in The Wonder Years so long ago. The series is quirky and is not a literal autobiographical translation of Rock's life, instead giving the writing team enough room to use what he gave them (he's credited with a number of the shows as writer) as well as situations that most kids find themselves in, albeit greatly exaggerated for comic effect. Playing a younger version of Chris is lead Tyler James Williams, a simple enough kid that doesn't really add a lot of timing to the punch lines but the show is far more apt to use Williams as a foil or stooge than the streetwise persona that the real life Chris developed as a means of survival in his Brooklyn, New York childhood. Interestingly though, as the season progressed, Williams did manage to start providing the kind of hint that he had what it took to make it in comedy; a departure from the majority of his work in the first half dozen episodes.
Okay, unlike many other family sitcoms, Everybody Hates Chris was not like other shows these days like The War At Home, where the parents are always being manipulated by the kids; nor was it like Leave It To Beaver where the parents were always the kind hearted, rational folks we all like to hold up as the kind of parents we'd prefer to have had if given a choice. No, this one had the kind of parents that most of us were blessed with; irrational, emotionally driven, and prone to embracing their weaknesses as much as looking out for us. Julius Rock (perfectly played by caring but dumb Terry Crews) and matron Rochelle Rock (Tichina Arnold in another fine role) provided the set of controlling but selfish parents that consider kids to be slaves; Rochelle threatening to beat, torture, or otherwise impose severe sanctions if things did not go her way (extending her attitude towards Julius in fact). The interplay between Rochelle and Julius make up the second most common dynamic of the show after Chris' antics of course. She is the reason he goes to a school where he is the only black kid in his grade (only one other seen a few times in the background); making sure he gets a better education than the school the other neighborhood children go to which has an impact on his social life.
Rounding out the cast were a hodge podge of crazy characters; Drew Rock (Tequan Richmond); Chris' debonair younger brother, Tanya Rock (Imani Hakim), the bratty sister that was much more likely to fight with Drew, such as using false accusations to get her mother on her side, and Greg (Vincent Martella) as Chris' best buddy, a white boy about as helpful as a lump of coal when trouble came from their sworn enemy Caruso (Travis Flory); a redheaded bully that always sought to use the "might makes right" argument against the two heroes of the show. The school where Chris spends so much of his time is also populated by a select cast of weirdoes, including jungle love struck teacher (and demeaningly racist) Ms. Morello (Jacqueline Mazarella) and Principal Edwards (Jason Alexander is another fantastically bizarre role using his talents to the fullest, sadly missed here as he was so sparingly used in front of the camera this season). The neighborhood consisted of a variety of thugs, losers, and nutcases too like Ernest Thomas as Mr. Omar; certainly one of the stranger guys in the building; or even crime punk Malvo (Ricky Harris) who appears as a prime troublemaker of the next step up compared to the regulars who merely take Chris' lunch money (the guy getting his own episode of sorts when he gets out of jail and tries to go back to high school with help from Chris).
In terms of humor, there are three main types the show relies on to sell the premise. This first type is the generic "family in trouble" humor that could apply to any sitcom regardless of location, specific characters, and the like. When Chris' uncle sells mix tapes out of his car, of course Julius is going to bail him out, or when dad's finances are weak, his turn to Kwanza is a natural method of fighting off seasonal greed (which the family all fights tooth & nail). Another part of the humor is the "kid growing up" approach and this is about as common as grass on front yards in the USA (hundreds of shows have employed it successfully and not over the generations). The third type of humor is what differentiates the show and also makes it less appealing to major numbers of people and that is the race based humor so frequently used. I assume most of us are used to the kind of "whitey hates blacks" humor espoused on shows like The Jeffersons, All in the Family, and Sanford and Son (and believe me, they were only the tip of the iceberg), often written as satire or in a passive aggressive manner. What this show does is it uses real racial issues, pumps them up to ridiculous proportions, and mocks all sides of the issue though in the third season, there was far less balance, almost as if someone made the conscious decision to pander more to the black crowd forming the core audience. Like the Ms. Morello character is unaware of her racism though, I don't think it was done in a mean spirited manner so much as to spice things up, a bit of an edge added more this year than previously though it was always in the background.
So what kind of situations does Chris get himself into this season? This is again as varied as each individual episode; all of them starting with the label "everybody hates...". Perhaps the best episode for me was the "Bad Boys" episode where Chris is shown how women can't help but be attracted to guys that treat them like dirt. The hilarious music video by Slaver Slav (Aaron Grady) a hoot as the insider joke about rappers and women played out so well (even though Chris ended up with a shoe in a very wrong place by the end). The season opener featuring Chris Rock in a cameo role as a guidance counselor was also a lot of fun, the protagonist getting an earful from a guy that ended up in the lowly position of giving career advice to kids but handled so accurately that I wonder if a consultant came in to assist (Rock himself was too straight-laced in the episode to be as funny as usual but the episode played on that really well, especially as he dealt with Rochelle). The dog episode with Blackie, a dog that only understands Spanish, or the hockey episode about Wayne Gretzky also had a lot of charm as did the Mother's Day episode where the other kids got some licks in, the season finale about graduating making a few hilarious pokes to affirmative action and well meaning Morello (and some tender moments about the dance recital). The season arc about Tasha (Paige Hurd) was overplayed a bit too often but even Caruso getting beat down in the earlier part of the season had some cute moments.
With the fourth season about to start soon (I believe it will be airing on Friday's so watch it now or lose the ratings war), I would have originally wondered if the style of humor could have sustained itself for much longer but seeing as how some of the secondary characters were given larger bits outside of Chris' presence, it was clear that there would be room for plenty more using the others more in the future but also expanding on the sarcastic, even occasionally caustic, wit of Chris Rock (the narrator) who would interject words of knowing wisdom as a guy that has been there, done that, and suffered the consequences of his mistakes far too many times (is it any wonder his comedy albums are crossover hits with audiences of all colors?). It's tough to rate a DVD set for a half hour comedy show style airing but I found Everybody Hates Chris: Season Three to be good enough that I rated it as worthy of Recommended thanks in no small part to the replayability and sweet extras included on the four disc set. In short, Chris Rock...still rocks!
Everybody Hates Chris: Season Three
1) Everybody Hates the Guidance Counselor (10/1/2007)
2) Everybody Hates the Caruso (10/8/2007)
3) Everybody Hates Driving (10/15/2007)
4) Everybody Hates Blackie (10/22/2007)
5) Everybody Hates the Bachelor Pad (10/29/2007)
6) Everybody Hates Bed Stuy (11/5/2007)
7) Everybody Hates Houseguests (11/12/2007)
8) Everybody Hates Minimum Wage (11/19/2007)
9) Everybody Hates the New Kid (11/26/2007)
10) Everybody Hates Kwanza (12/10/2007)
11) Everybody Hates the Port Authority (3/2/2008)
12) Everybody Hates Bad Boys (3/9/2008)
13) Everybody Hates the First Kiss (3/16/2008)
14) Everybody Hates Easter (3/23/2008)
15) Everybody Hates Gretzky (3/30/2008)
16) Everybody Hates the BFD (4/6/2008)
17) Everybody Hates Ex-Cons (4/13/2008)
18) Everybody Hates Earth Day (4/20/2008)
19) Everybody Hates Being Cool (4/27/2008)
20) Everybody Hates the Ninth Grade Dance (5/4/2008)
21) Everybody Hates Mother's Day (5/11/2008)
22) Everybody Hates Graduation (5/18/2008)
Picture: Everybody Hates Chris: The Third Season was another fine example of how to make a currently airing television show look good on DVD with an anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 ratio color print free of scratches, grain, and problems in 480i resolution using the MPEG-2 codec favored by standard definition shows. It was crisp and shot with the usual flat lighting a network show is filmed in (this season being focused on 1985 and 1986, when Rock was 15 years old); showing scant evidence of edge enhancement or aliasing though still not perfect. Originally airing on the CW network, I had my doubts going in but it looked like it could have aired on CBS but for some of the language and situations that they'd never have the nads to put up with. The back cover of the DVD case did worry me with the usual disclaimer about some episodes being edited from their original network versions but there was not much variation in running times here so if any of you have a definitive source of edits; please feel free to send me an email with them, the average running time clocking in at just under 21 minutes per episode.
Sound: The audio was another area where the box cover made it clear that some editing might have taken place but as I heard bits and pieces of various 1980's music, I did not concern myself as much (there were rarely lengthy clips of songs but hearing some popular songs of the mid 1980's, I left it in the hands of readers to submit changes, even more alluded to in the final during the mix tapes side plot). The audio was presented with the standard choice of a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English track or a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo track in the language of choice. This being a sitcom, most of the audio came firmly from the center channel but the laugh track, music, and special effects seemed to take on a life of their own in the surround version. I think I could count on one hand how few times the subwoofer perked up but this is not surprising, usually related to some of the flashback elements of which there were fewer of this year, the special effects minimized for budgetary reasons or simply to help with the flow of the show if I remember reading about it correctly, but there were some times when it came into play.
Extras: The extras were broken up into a couple of groups by me; the ones where something interesting about the show went on and the ones where the kids were involved. The majority of the time, the numerous audio commentaries and deleted scenes added some value to me, this season showing the expansion of the webisode feature that allowed the director or cast to get a few minutes in to explain various points of the episode back when they were shot (largely missing the WGA writer strike by shooting ahead of it thankfully). The first disc had a commentary by Ali LeRoi (one of the main people behind the series and frequent director) on the season opener episode (Everybody Hates The Guidance Counselor); the guy providing a lot of insight as he discussed aspects of the show. Vincent Martella (Chris' geek buddy) provided the audio commentary on Everybody Hates Houseguests and was surprising strong compared to some of the actor efforts in the past episodes for the second season. About a third of the episodes had one or more deleted scenes, many of them at least as funny as the material contained in the episode itself, but they were not as consistently appealing as previous efforts, perhaps incorporating the better material straight into the shows, Ali commenting in the first commentary about a series of websites where all sorts of extra material was to be found (half heartedly though, laughing about the idea and saying they don't exist). The webisodes on each episode were spotty at times (tending to be only a few minutes long) in how amusing the directors and cast could be, Debbie Allen acting somewhat more aloof and professional but kind, Jason Alexander making me wish he had a bigger role this season, and Jerry Levine providing a breath of fresh air when he got to do them.
The fourth disc had the most real extras came into play with some lengthy cast interviews, a gag reel, a short feature on Ms. Morello showing some of her more transparent racist remarks, and even a voice over special where Chris Rock was in the studio to keep going over his lines, bugging some of those he worked with due to the way he could alter a line and make it funnier, sometimes requiring them to select the "best take" instead of keeping it all. The location reel was kind of lame since I didn't care the guidance counselor's office was adjacent to the cafeteria or how the same studio lot was dressed up to become other cities or Spanish Harlem with a few banners and minor changes. I also found the full Slaver Slav music video to be very funny, preaching about how he gets the ladies because he isn't "nice". In all then, the webisodes, short as they were, comprised the backbone of the extras this time, don't skip them if you're interested in seeing how some of the shows played out behind the scenes.
Final Thoughts: Everybody Hates Chris: The Third Season was interesting in a number of ways, the fusion of different styles of comedy for each character adding to the fun for me (Rochelle's passive aggressive rants, Julius' physical comedy, and Tyler's facial expressions during the narrated portions were really well done). The show was far from perfect but as a slice of life inspired by comedian Chris Rock's growing up in the mean streets of NY, it was certainly a pleasing blend of family styled comedy taken just a step or two further than you would expect to see on one of the bigger networks; effectively earning the laughs by playing harder, faster, and using the rapid style commentary of Chris Rock as the basis for even more chuckles. In short, Everybody Hates Chris: The Third Season showed a lot more heart than sitcoms are known for these days, not exactly avoiding the cheap laughs but always ready to blend them in with some lighter message about a world where little made sense; the world of Chris Rock growing up in the 1980's.