The fall TV season may only be a few weeks old, but a clear front-runner has emerged in the race for Best Guest Performer in a Comedy Series: Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” has already been used to genius effect on Glee and Cougar Town, and last night, its irresistible beats ushered in the series premiere of Sherri on Lifetime. Not that the show’s titular star, The View‘s Sherri Shepherd, needed much help turning this semi-autobiographical comedy into something worthy of repeat spins. Indeed, the first-episode punchlines flew faster and more furiously than heated barbs in a political debate between Joy Behar and Elisabeth Hasselbeck — sometimes to the point that the writing felt downright manic — but if your biggest complaint about a sitcom is that it needs to give more breathing room to its zingers, then it’s already got a head start on most of its competitors.

Even more promising, while the promos for Sherri made it look like a one-woman show, it actually boasts a solid supporting cast. In fact, Tammy Townsend (as Sherri’s office bestie Celia) may have scored the evening’s biggest laugh: While accompanying Sherri to a sandwich shop to confront her husband’s mistress at her workplace, Celia blithely began ordering a ham and cheese with extra mustard, then convinced Sherri to grab a wrap for herself, too. (Bonus points to the prop-master for the humongous beverage cups Sherri and Celia carried back to the office.) Grey’s Anatomy‘s Kali Rocha also managed to wring the funny out of a character that could’ve felt like she was copied wholesale from the hackneyed sitcom-writing handbook: The cat-obsessed, sexually frustrated boss-lady from hell. Her response to Sherri’s weekend cocktails invite (“There’s not gonna be three shovels and a bag of lye in the trunk, is there?”) proved just the right mix of daft and deft.

But make no mistake: Amusing costars and Beyoncé jams aside, Sherri’s ultimate success rests squarely on its star’s shoulders. And while you could dismiss her performance by saying she’s just playing herself, Shepherd goes beyond “sassy quip-thrower” or “angry woman-done-wrong” clichés. For instance, when Sherri realized her husband’s now-pregnant fling was “just a dumb kid with fantastic taste in comedians,” you could hear the conflict — the sudden fear and, yes, disappointment that the woman who’d “ruined” her life wasn’t necessarily a monster — in her line-reading. And while Shepherd had me howling with her take on the five stages of grief (“Anger, anger, anger, anger, candy.”), she also managed to bring to life the first stirrings of new love in her scenes opposite Michael Boatman (as her son’s pediatrician).

Indeed, much like ABC’s single-mom-on-the-prowl Cougar Town (which has already scored a series recording on my DVR), Sherri examines the life of a woman who unexpectedly and unwillingly finds in the market for a partner — and not quite sure where to shop. Sherri’s response to a young suitor’s guess that she was 27 or 28 –“You pick one. I can’t decide. They both sound so good.” — was even funnier than the subsequent scene where she and the young man’s mother whoop him with their purses. But it’s also clear that Sherri‘s got an ultimately less randy point of view than Courteney Cox’s bawdy romp. When was the last time you saw a sitcom where friends (unironically) held hands and prayed for strength? The fact that Sherri is a woman of faith — as well as a woman of anger, ambition, loneliness, humor, and sexuality — is cause for optimism. The fact that her prayer circle ended with a guffaw-worthy realization about her ex-husband — “Nope, he’s still got to die.” — is cause for a second date to see if Sherri is worth falling in love with.

What did you think of the Sherri premiere? Were there any other good punchlines I missed? And will you be back for a second episode next week? Sound off in the comments section below!

Image Credit: Carol Kaelson/Lifetime Networks

ABC's "The View" - Season 20

The View

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