Sex, stand-up, and getting ‘White Famous’
The slick old Showtime series “Californication” was about the clash between Hollywood and artistic standards, with David Duchovny’s literary author, Hank Moody, stuck in the middle. Hank had a lot of scruples, and a lot of sex, too.
The slick new Showtime series “White Famous” is also about having scruples and having sex in Hollywood, which makes sense because both shows were created by the same guy, Tom Kapinos. This time around, though, the hero is Jay Pharoah’s Floyd Mooney, and his scruples are about leaving behind a stand-up act geared to black audiences in order to become a movie actor who’s “white famous” — that is, able to draw white people into theaters, like Eddie Murphy.
One of the show’s executive producers is Jamie Foxx, and some of Floyd’s experiences have been modeled after Foxx’s.
There’s plenty to enjoy about “White Famous,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., even if it fails to dig as deeply as it could into the racial issues it raises. This is not an intimate look at the many facets of racial identity in present-day America, something more indie-styled shows such as “Insecure,” “Atlanta,” and “Master of None” do so beautifully and sensitively. This is a much broader comedy about the cynicism, spinelessness, and racism so rampant in Hollywood and the personal growth of an immature black man thrown into the middle of it all. Everyone around Floyd — including his agent, Malcolm (the amusing Utkarsh Ambudkar), and his ex and the mother of his son, Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman) — is pushing him to compromise, to be more open to fame and fortune. But he’s consistently on the fence and committed to the advice of his wise, freeloading, and always hungry sidekick, Ron Balls (Jacob Ming-Trent).
Kapinos, who wrote the three episodes available for review, isn’t necessarily focused on how the racist behavior Floyd encounters messes with his head. Floyd is accustomed to watching white people bend over backward — and fall over, too — trying not to be racist. Awkward handshakes between Floyd and various white people ensue, as well as a painful interaction with a famous producer named Stu Beggs played by Stephen Tobolowsky (who played the same role on “Californication”). First Stu mistakes Floyd for a valet, then digs his hole deeper by trying to get out of it with comments including the classic, “I love black people.” A clip of the fraught interaction between Floyd and Stu goes viral, which, through a chain of events, leads Floyd directly to Foxx (playing a version of himself), in flagrante with a woman on the floor of his trailer on a movie set.
The blunt humor and unapologetic hedonism recall “Entourage” and, of course, “Californication,” in which no sexual position was left unexplored by the end of the series in 2014. It’s not particularly original, but with lively guests such as Foxx, Tobolowsky, and, beginning in episode two, Michael Rapaport and Natalie Zea (as a soulless agent named Amy Von Getz; Kapinos clearly likes to play with names), the material is nonetheless twisted fun.
It’s Pharoah, though, best known for his six-season stint on “Saturday Night Live,” who carries the action. He’s droll enough, making his eyes dance at others’ foolishness, but he also has an unexpected sadness about him that adds dimension to the show. Floyd still longs for Sadie, even while she dates other men, and he wants to be there for his son, Trevor (Lonnie Chavis, who also plays young Randall on “This Is Us”). Floyd and Sadie clearly belong together, but first Floyd needs to fall into the rabbit hole known as La La land.
Starring: Jay Pharoah, Stephen Tobolowsky, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Natalie Zea, Jack Davenport, Michael Rapaport, Jamie Foxx, Jacob Ming-Trent, Cleopatra Coleman
On: Showtime, Sunday night, 10-10:30