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October 10, 2017 at 02:07 PM EDT
We gave it a C-

Can a man really have it all? Can he be happy and successful, famous yet true to himself, triumphantly devoted to a single lady love whilst yet finding within himself the courage to make triumphant love to other ladies? Such are the eternal ponderables at the heart of White Famous, a halfhearted satire of Hollywood race relations that’s more convincing as a nostalgia trip for the golden age of premium-cable brogramming. Jay Pharoah plays Floyd Mooney, an ascendant stand-up who worries about losing his authentic self to fame. He’s offered a big breakthrough role in a feature film — but dressed as an old lady. “Every time there’s a funny black brother in Hollywood, they try to emasculate him,” Floyd ruminates. “I don’t want to sell out.”

It’s an admirable sentiment. And the Showtime series’ perfect title captures the paradoxical win-loss of African-American celebrity, the excitement of “crossing over” plus the fear that you can’t ever cross back. The director (played by Togetherness‘ Steve Zissis) who offers Floyd the role in his movie greets Floyd with an awkward-white-dude fist-bump. It’s an old gag, one that won’t lose its power until white dudes stop awkwardly fist-bumping later this century. The conversation spirals down from there. Floyd doesn’t just identify the man as racist. He laser-pinpoints him on the spectrum of problemathematics, describing him as a “well-meaning, West of the 405 racist.”

And then, in the same conversation, Floyd says, “Aren’t we just a little done with the whole Cosby pile-on? I don’t know for sure if he raped anybody! Maybe he did them a favor by drugging them!” The white guy spit-takes over that line, and so did I. But, look, I try to be well-meaning, I live west of the 405, I’m aware that outrage is a privilege sometimes. But the show’s provocations trend cheap and empty. By the time the Cosby rant ends, Floyd’s using the phrase “lady gravy.”

And White Famous cheapens itself with cheap laugh lines like that. And it proudly sells out: There is a parade of celebrity cameos, and a parade of nameless females introduced butt-first. There’s an easy comparison you can make for any show about a young dude rising to fame. But forget Entourage, because White Famous is actually part of the Californication Cinematic Universe, a phrase somehow more painful to write than “lady gravy.” That show’s creator, Tom Kapinos, created White Famous, and the show features check-ins from a couple supporting characters, which will surely amuse everyone’s one doofus friend who loved Californication.

The more notable name on the executive producer list is Jamie Foxx, whose life story provides some vague basis for the show’s fantasies. Foxx plays himself, introduced mid-coitus with a young woman whose personality must have missed the final cut. The credits call her “Jamie’s Girl,” so thank goodness she’s found a higher calling.

Now, look. In real life, few people seem to enjoy being famous more than Foxx. Recall the 2010 Grammys, when he performed “Blame It” with opera singers and Slash and a costume-cape. Foxx has an Oscar, and he played a nerdy action-hero president, and he was the bluest part of Amazing Spider-Man 2. He made you want to beat Shazam.

So White Famous wants to cast Foxx as a north star of stardom for young Floyd. But his presence makes the whole show feel ego-strokish. Actually, everything here feels ego-strokish. Both episodes I’ve seen turn on the same essential plot point, coincidentally the only plot point that ever mattered on Entourage: Faced with the possibility of making a difficult decision to achieve success, the young star refuses to make the decision, and then achieves success anyway. As an actor, Pharoah has the same impressionist’s problem as fellow SNL alum Dana Carvey. Left to build a new character, he’s a bit untethered. (Floyd does a couple of impressions, and those moments are, depressingly, Pharaoh’s best.)

Meanwhile, Floyd’s ex Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman) waits patiently. She is raising their son. They still hook up occasionally. And she is always quick to sanctify Floyd’s journey. The first two episodes both climax with Sadie pumping up Floyd’s ego. “You’re a good father,” she’ll tell him. “No one’s ever gonna be sweeter, no one’s ever gonna be funnier. You’re a good man, Floyd Mooney.” So White Famous is the oldest trick in Hollywood’s book, a phony Horatio Alger story that’s really a vanity project desperate to validate its own vanity.

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