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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Somebodies' just might grow on you

September 09, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

The first scripted series in the 29-year history of BET, "Somebodies" is also -- as far as I can remember or tell -- the first single-camera African American comedy since Tim Reid's great, ahead-of-its-time "Frank's Place" aired for a season on CBS two decades ago. (Put that out on DVD, now, copyright holders.) Focusing on a group of nearly post-collegiate friends in the university town of Athens, Ga. -- previously best-known as the home of R.E.M. and the B-52s -- it has the flavor of an independent feature and indeed is based on one.

Not to denigrate three-camera, shot-before-a-live-audience comedy -- the three little words "I Love Lucy" are all the defense that the form needs -- but there is a fundamental difference between that kind of sitcom and this. The first puts the audience in the position of watching a show, and the second drops the viewer into a world. Certainly, some of the scenes in "Somebodies" (produced by the executive producers of "The Bernie Mac Show") could be played before an audience, with arrows pointing to the punch lines. But the best involve the kind of relaxed batting back and forth of lines with no hurry to get to the joke.

The Southern, small-town setting and extensive location shooting contribute to that mood and set the series apart not only from the few black comedies managing to survive elsewhere on the dial but from most every other sitcom.

Like the film on which it's based, "Somebodies" is written and directed by the single-named Hadjii, who also plays the central role of Scotti, an amiable slacker in no hurry to finish school or assume any sort of adult responsibility.

"Look at you up here walkin' around with one sock on," an uncle upbraids him one afternoon on his front porch. (Scotti, who does have only one sock on, is regularly upbraided by his relatives.) "That ain't no way to live. Either put on the other sock or take that one off. Just get it together, young 'un."

Hadjii isn't the most natural actor in his ensemble, which includes a host of Atlanta-based stand-up comics, many reprising their film roles. But he grows on you. I took his diamond-pattern sweater, with his round, shaved head, to be a kind of a visual reference to the Charlie Brown-ness of his character -- and a couple of episodes in, ex-girlfriend Diva (Kaira Akita, formerly Kaira Whitehead) does indeed refer to his "Charlie Brown big fat head."

And though his character is the nominal center of the action, Hadjii hasn't pushed himself to the forefront. As often as not he's playing the straight man, content to let his pals -- Nard Holston, Anthony K. Hyatt, Corey Redding and Quante Strickland -- bounce their various attitudes off one another, his relatives lecture him, his minister rants. There is a lot of social satire specific to the black experience but also incursions into "Seinfeld" territory, as in a series of scenes about not wanting to taste another person's food.

Apart from Diva, who is madly self-actualizing ("Oprah taught me how to live my life with no boundaries -- you see all this house? I can't afford this"), Hadjii has fewer good ideas about what to do with his female characters. There are henpecked-husband jokes, and a "Hide, it's my husband" scene, and hot neighbor girls washing a car. But for the most part, it avoids the obvious, even when it looks to be headed there. Sweet, lyrical and a little cracked, it's worth seeking out.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Somebodies'

Where: BET

When: 10:30 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)

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