It was an odd choice for a rebounding Eddie Murphy. After a few years in mandatory funny man entertainment exile, he was back on top - sort of. His 1996 take on Jerry Lewis' classic Nutty Professor brought him to the fore, and other efforts such as Life, Dr. Doolittle, and Bowfinger reestablished his early '80s bankability. So when he was approached to do a television show, the still substantial movie star could have said "No." Instead, he teamed up with Larry Wilmore and Steve Tompkins (of In Living Color fame) and Wil Vinton (animation magician and creator of the California Raisins) to spoof life along the fringes of a disenfranchised urban landscape. Called The PJs (slang for the predominantly African American "projects" of any major US city) and featuring the famous comedian as a crotchety old building supervisor, the stop motion effort became part of a Fox Tuesday night package deal with Mike Judge's struggling King of the Hill. In the end, Mr. Beavis and Butthead would go on for 11 more seasons (13 in total). Murphy's baby barely lasted two before being shuffled off to the WB, where it would die a last place network death - and that's too bad. Ahead of its time and cruelly comical, this was strong street humor at its irascible best.
The main narrative centered on Thurgood Stubbs (Murphy) and his understanding wife Muriel (Loretta Devine). As the "super" for the Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs Projects, he must deal with a group of equally unhinged tenants, including his spouse's slutty sister Bebe Ho (Jenifer Lewis), her Asian 'homeboy' husband (Michael Paul Chan), elderly dingbat Mrs. Avery (Ja'net Dubois), Smokey (Shawn Michael Howard), a homeless crackhead, the voodoo loving Haitian lady Mambo Garcelle (Cheryl Francis Harrington) and Sanchez (Pepe Serna), a man who speaks through an electronic voice box placed to his throat. There are also two young kids - Calvin (Crystal Scales) and "Juicy" Hudson (Michele Morgan) who make Thurgood's daily grind even more exasperating.
Season One contains 13 episodes. The only installment missing from the initial 1999 run is a holiday themed entry entitled "How the Super Stoled (sic) Christmas". Also, the original broadcast running order was different than the presentation here. No reason is given for the minor change.
1. "The Door" - Thurgood goes to HUD to get a new door for the building.
2. "Rich Man, Porn Man" - Thurgood wants to refurbish a local movie house.
3. "Hangin' With Mr. Super" - Thurgood is in charge of teaching Calvin a lesson.
4. "Journal Fever" - When his wife gets ill, Thurgood must take care of her.
5. "Bougie Nights" - Thurgood tries to finagle his way into the luxury apartment on the top floor.
6. "Haiti Sings the Blues" - Thurgood is cursed by his voodoo loving resident.
7. "Bones, Bugs N' Harmony" - Thurgood discovers some secrets about Mrs. Avery.
8. "A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Super" - Thurgood takes credit when Muriel stops a break-in.
9. "He's Gotta Have It" - Thurgood's libido is reestablished with the help of an experimental drug.
10. "Boyz 'N' The Woods" - Thurgood agrees to create a 'camp' for Calvin and Juicy.
11. "Operation Gumbo Drop" - It's Thurgood and Juicy in the project's annual cook-off.
12. "U Go Kart" - Thurgood helps Calvin and Juicy build a go-kart.
13. "House Potty" - Thurgood buys himself a high class...toilet?
During its heyday, The PJs was far more controversial than commercially successful. Even with Muprhy's name, most mainstream viewers didn't get the rampant cultural riffs (and rifts), the tweaked racial stereotyping, and most importantly, the Good Times via The Simpsons style of humor. Murphy and the rest of the creative team didn't wince from presenting the darker side of poverty and 'ghetto' life. The show was such a lightning rod that artists like Spike Lee complained about its desire to milk laughs out of such a problematic premise. While viewers didn't seem to mind, The PJs also never became a full-fledged hit. Instead, it mulled along the sidelines for a while before escalating costs and dwindling demand saw Fox finally cancel it. Even a brief return on the more minority-oriented WB couldn't save it. The reasons then were many and misinterpreted. The truth today is far more simple: The PJs was WAY ahead of its time. In fact, Murphy should be calling up Tyler Perry to start working out a monetary settlement immediately. Without this inventive series, Madea and her madcap adventures might never have happened.
Indeed, Thurgood is the crossroads between Redd Foxx's always fascinating Fred Sanford and the evangelical playwrights delightful drag act. This sullied super is angry and old school, missing the majority of modern popular culture but assured that anything he enjoyed is still relevant and right. In combination with the rest of the voice cast, Murphy makes the most of the setting, offering stellar adlibs that tie things to today's (read: 1999's) headlines while still preaching tradition. Since this was the series' first season, some characters had yet to make their full value known. Smokey is sensational if a tad one note, while Bebe constantly threatens to be a bigger breakout star than she ultimately became. Calvin and Juicy are always good for a laugh, while other ancillary players press the leads for additional air time. Once of the best things about this show is its characterization. While they might appear draw from crude caricatures, the fact is that Murphy and his writers wring as much truth out of the comic standards and standbys as possible. The know they have to keep the audience entertained first before they can hit them with a message.
Among the better installments of the series are "Rich Man, Porn Man," the hilarious household escapades of "Journal Fever," Thurgood's fiendish attempts to secure the luxury digs that sit atop the Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs building in "Bougie Nights," and the fun food frenzy of "Operation Gumbo Drop." There is also some heart here, "Bones, Bugs N' Harmony" offering a decidedly different side of the grumpy Mrs. Avery, and there is always a strong core of emotion between Thurgood and his wife. Of course, the show could wander over into scatology every once in a while, as with the sex drive oriented "He's Gotta Have It" and the ode to the commode, "House Potty." While never gross or gratuitous, the show could "slum" with the best of them. At the center stands Murphy, making the most out of the plasticine version of his angry old self, sailing through the material with an ability born of stardom. While it's a shame that The PJs didn't last longer, it still stands as a significant mark in the man's many faceted career. Perhaps in 2011, it can get the respect it deserves.
Even though it is a little over 12 years old, the transfers of The PJs look terrific. The 1.33:1 full screen image is colorful, bright, detailed, and more or less freshly minted. These don't appear to be syndication reproductions, but right from the vault efforts. Lionsgate polishes the entire presentation to look almost brand new. While not quite reference quality, it's close.
The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is nothing special. It presents the series, and its occasional hip hop flavored score, in acceptable aural aspects. While the dialogue can be difficult to understand at time, it is not the mastering's fault. Instead, Murphy and the cast cram so much into every exchange that they often talk over each other ala Altman. It has a tendency to make each episode a must-repeat experience, if only to catch all the gags.
Sadly, there are none. What a missed opportunity.
During its initial run, few took The PJs seriously. They wanted Eddie Murphy doing his best bad-ass comic icon shtick, not a character actor channeling famed mentors from the past. As a result, this is a series rife for rediscovery, viewed within the skewed sensibility of 1999 and then reconfigured for the life and times circa 2011. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it would have been nice for Lionsgate to take a bit more care with this release. Bare bones is not the way to go with something this significant. Even if its "star" didn't want to cooperate, any context regarding this entertainment experiment would have been welcome...and warranted. There has never been a show quite like The PJs before - and as you notice, there hasn't been one since.