I wanted to like Reed Between The Lines more than I did. It stars the great Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. It was BET’s first real attempt at curbing its ain’t shitness. And the first two episodes had real promise.
But, ultimately, the show was too in love with it’s desire to be a “Positive Black Family Show” and too indifferent to the fact that, outside of Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s Dr. Alex Reed, no one makes an impression. Man, the show is just dry.
After the jump I make five suggestions for things that BET and the producers can do to fix this show.
1. Make Gabriella and Miss Helen recurring characters
Reed Between the Lines is a family sitcom. Making Gabriella and Miss Helen recurring frees up time to establish this fact more strongly. We just don’t need them as regular characters because they take valuable time away from establishing the show’s family dynamic. Ross’ Dr. Carla Reed spends so much time at work with these two individuals and random guest stars like Lauren London, that she is like a guest star in the home scenes. I think it’s important to show her as a working mother, but the “mother” part is lost in an attempt to create relationships with these two unnecessary co-workers.
Plus – neither character is very funny or particularly interesting as individuals. Anna Maria Horsford looks bored as hell in her scenes because Miss Helen is a blank slate. She doesn’t believe in acupuncture and she sometimes says inappropriately sexual things. The latter could be funny if they go full bore. Think Betty White. Melissa DeSousa is even less interesting. And she and Ross have terrible chemistry. I don’t believe for a second that they’ve been friends for years.
2. Create conflict by making the Reeds’ lives real
The world of Reed Between The Lines doesn’t feel real yet. The kids should have recurring friends so that we can see how they behave as children. Alex Reed should actually be shown teaching. Carla should actually be shown parenting. And, most importantly, there has to be some conflict borne of the fact that the Reeds are blended family.
I get the benefits of showing a blended family that works. But only once in the show did Keenan try to play his real father off of Alex. Only once? That’s just not believable. Kids are manipulative because they are trying to test and learn the limits. I am willing to believe that these kids are smart enough to know Alex is the better father, but emotionally it’s still gotta hurt that the real father isn’t around. Work with that.
The finale featured an episode where Carla was still angry at Keenan and Kaci’s biological father for not being a better husband. That’s a good start. Next season it would be good if Carla continued to deal with that and if we could see the effect, however small, of all of this on Keenan and Kaci.
3. Play to the teen actors’ strengths
Child actors on sitcoms are always a mixed bag, so the fact that the kids don’t really work yet has more to do with the material they’re given than the children themselves.
Nadji Jeter is the most prominent, likely because he’s the most experienced. But he is clearly a down-to-earth kid struggling to play a slightly vain, popularity-obsessed, lazy clothes horse. He’s just not a good enough actor to play something so clearly the opposite of who he really is. Next season, the show should deepen Keenan so that Jeter can do what he’s much better at: playing earnest.
Zoe Borde’s Kaci is the Meg Griffin of the show, poor thing. But interestingly of the three child actors, she’s the one with decent comic timing so the show should use her as much as it possibly can. In fact, just go ahead and make her full-on annoying know-it-all like Vanessa Huxtable because, really, that’s who Kaci is.
4. Free up the writers
Reed’s creator is Kellie Griffin who was a producer on Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. Yup – House of Payne. But the writing staff is filled with veteran sitcom writers some of whom wrote for Girlfriends and The Bernie Mac Show, the two finest black sitcoms of the last decade. So I don’t think talent is the issue.
The issue is that the show has hired writers who cut their teeth on edgy, funny, brilliant sitcoms and then asked them to do the opposite of what they have built their careers doing. It is clear from watching any of the episodes that these writers are blocked by the mandate to make the show “positive.” And that’s because, like most bourgie black folks, they mistake perfection for positivity so the characters don’t feel human. The Reeds were only ever really angry once, when Keenan lied about cheating on a test. Without more of that, you are just left with the impression that the show wants to teach kids a lesson about lying, not tell a story about why a kid like Keenan would cheat and then lie about it.
Black people have flaws, but those flaws can be presented in a way that affirms the humanity of black people. Just because our so-called pathologies predominate in television, doesn’t mean our “positive” shows should paint us as perfect. It’s basic: no conflict, no humor. The writers need to loosen up and just write funny situations. A lil more Bernie Mac in this show would be dope.
5. Stop wasting Tracee Ellis Ross
Ross has gotta be the first star to produce and develop her own show only to strand herself in a thankless role. Dr. Carla Reed is a cipher. I have no idea who she is. And that means that Ross’ acting quirks, so well-established on Girlfriends, make Carla come across like Joan with a bit less insecurity. This is not the fault of Ross’ acting, it’s the fault of writers who haven’t spent any time establishing who Dr. Carla Reed is.
Carla’s work stories don’t reveal anything about her because they are designed to highlight Miss Helen or Gabriella or some random guest star. And when Carla comes home, she just watches Alex parent. There are scenes where she literally comes in, cracks a joke, and then leaves so that Alex can do all the parenting. It’s bizarre. I am not saying that it’s bad that Alex is the primary parent. I’m saying that the show isn’t giving Tracee Ellis Ross anything to do in most scenes in which she appears.
And this is a problem because Ross is the most gifted comedic actor on the show. To waste a talent as great as hers is insane to me.
6. Why is a family show on at 10pm?
I don’t think Reed Between The Lines isn’t worth saving. But it’ll be important for the producers and writers to really tinker with the show so that it works better. Sitcoms take time to really gel generally. You gotta find actors’ rhythms and strengths. You gotta figure out who the characters are. And you gotta establish the dominant energy of the show.
Think about a show like Happy Endings, which started out as a show about a couple that broke up and how they maintain a friendship with each other and their mutual friends and then becomes a show about six insanely funny friends. It may not be the show that the creators expected or wanted it to be, but it’s a better show now than it was in its brief first season.
The same is true here. I think Ross and Warner and the producers want this show to be The Cosby Show. I think they want to be proud that it shows black people in a positive light. But I don’t think they know what else they want the show to be. And until they do, the show will not gel the way it should.
Really great write-up, with positive, actionable critiques. As a TV scribe-hag, it’s nice to see someone who actually gives a damn instead of just trashing the work. Well done, T.!