Stay Tuned: Fall TV preview: ‘White Famous’
Loosely based on Jamie Foxx’s career, “White Famous” focuses on rising star Floyd Mooney (Jay Pharoah), a stand-up comic trying to broaden his fan base (to become “white famous” as his agent says) while maintaining his integrity. The show has creative ties to “Californication” with crossover characters and thematic similarities, which primarily involve how to stay true to yourself while navigating the road to fame and fortune in Hollywood. But here, racial politics intersects the edgy humor.
Much of the show’s comedy comes from Floyd’s reaction to his experiences. Making the character passive rather than active is good for some laughs and many of the jokes in the first two episodes are a result of racially insensitive encounters he has with white male Hollywood power players. Some work better than others but all make the show’s point that while it may be, as Floyd’s agent Malcom (Utkarsh Ambudkar) reminds him, a golden age of diversity in show business, real acceptance is far from a reality. In an awkward meeting with a white director Floyd tells the man that he is a racist but “not like KKK racist, more like well-meaning west of the 405 racist.”
But this is Hollywood and economics trumps racism, at least the “west of the 405” kind. Floyd’s big break comes after his best friend Ron Balls (Jacob Ming-Trent) posts a video of a famous producer mistaking Floyd for a restaurant valet. The racist rant goes viral and the producer, Stu Beggs (Stephen Tobolowsky reprising his “Californication” role), reaches out to Malcom to schedule a meeting so that he can make amends. When Stu offers Floyd a part in a movie, Floyd defensively responds that he doesn’t need a handout. Stu argues that it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement: “I need something to show the world that I’m not some racist creeper. You need not to pass on the opportunity of a lifetime.” Floyd takes the part.
He also regrets accepting the part, later complaining to Malcom that it offered little in the way of creativity, paid poorly and left him no time to spend with his young son. Malcolm reminds him that making it big often means taking baby steps.
Compromise — when to do it and how far to bend — is Floyd’s main concern and the choice to make the character react to things more than act on things might be a metaphor for the lack of control Floyd often seems to feel over his career. Or it might be a way to capitalize on the chemistry between the actors because many of Pharoah’s funniest moments are when he’s playing Floyd in response to Ron or Malcolm. Ming Trent’s wise and witty Ron is charming to watch while Ambudkar gives the fast-talking Malcolm an energetic, wise-cracking slickness. In one scene, he reminds Floyd that he is Indian and not African-American: “You deal with police. I deal with airport security.”
Balancing racial themes, comedy and existential angst about how to succeed without selling out is tricky and “White Famous” doesn’t always nail it. But it’s worth watching for the moments that it does.
“White Famous” premiers on Showtime on Oct. 15 at 10 p.m. EDT.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing’” and the recently released “The American Television Critic.” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.