Why The Neighborhood got serious with Black Lives Matter-focused season 3 premiere
"Being a show that is so much about race relationships and the Black experience, we knew that we had the platform and the opportunity and, frankly, the obligation to address the issue," creator Jim Reynolds tells EW of the CBS comedy's tonally-different episode.
When The Neighborhood creator Jim Reynolds first started thinking about season 3, the biggest issue on his mind was COVID-19. Would the CBS sitcom tackle the current global pandemic? How would Calvin Butler (Cedric the Entertainer) and his neighbor Dave Johnson (Max Greenfield) handle the situation rocking the country and world? But those conversations came to a halt after George Floyd died May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes in an encounter caught on video. His death sparked massive protests against police brutality and racial injustice and brought the Black Lives Matter movement onto a global scale.
"Before George Floyd, the country and myself, the network, Cedric, and the other producers were focused on COVID. But then, when George Floyd was killed and the movement moved to a grander scale, I felt very strongly as did Cedric that that was the issue that our show was really in a unique place to address it," Reynolds tells EW. "Being a show that is so much about race relationships and the Black experience, we knew that we had the platform and the opportunity and, frankly, the obligation to address the issue."
"With us being a show about a fictional neighborhood in Los Angeles we definitely felt like it was important for us to address one or two of these big issues, either the pandemic or social injustice," Cedric tells EW. "And after some examination we kind of felt that social injustice was truer to our story, our characters, and where we can write something that felt extremely important. There would be days on this set while we were rehearsing where we would stop and have long conversations about what it is that we're actually trying to say in this episode. It got really emotional."
The season 3 premiere of The Neighborhood is more serious than viewers may be expecting, with "Welcome to the Movement" finding the Butler family and the Johnson family united when a member of their own community is the victim of racial injustice, prompting them to join the Black Lives Matter protests happening in Los Angeles. The topical episode appropriately delivers less laughs than usual for a CBS half-hour sitcom, which never worried Reynolds or the network given how real and sensitive the issue is.
"It's such a tonally different episode for us," Reynolds says. "But everyone in front of the camera and behind the camera felt it was so important to be a part of being on the right side of history. And there certainly were conversations that haven't been had before. And because there was so much drama and real pain that was being addressed, you couldn't help but feel a different tone onstage or a different feeling. But it was one that everyone felt was important in getting this right."
And for Reynolds, who is white, that meant opening up an important dialogue in the writers' room and giving the spotlight to the Black writers. "We spent the first couple of days just having a very important discussion in the room between the Black writers and the white writers," he says. "For the white writers, hearing even more details about the Black writers' experiences being Black in America and about their feelings and reaction to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all the other Black Americans who've died at the hands of police. And also having the white writers express their feelings and figuring out their place in the movement and asking questions and having them answered in a safe space where we all knew that we were working together for a common goal but coming at it from different experiences."
He adds, "We knew that if we were going to do an episode like this, it needed to be authentic, it needed to be real, it had to be grounded in what the experience is. I, as a white man, can't have that and have not had that experience. I've had a very privileged existence and so in order for me to lead the show, I needed to listen."
For Greenfield, who plays the Butler's white neighbor Dave, he knew his job in this episode was simply, "How can I be of service to the story that we are all trying to tell?"
"This certainly is not about me, nor is it about Dave," he tells EW. "And I just really wanted to be present, focused, and a part of what we were all trying to do with this episode. The idea was really, how can I make this least about me? And how do I best listen?"
According to Cedric, "this was an episode that took a lot. We had a lot of people responding in different ways, from people and executives who hadn’t heard it before, it was really for the first time and it was like, 'Whoa.' All of the cast members had an opportunity to really express some truths and we wanted to make sure that we paid attention to those."
While the season premiere tackles a more dramatic story than usual, that doesn't mean jokes were thrown out the window. "There were some triumphs, of course, and because we are a sitcom we had to be able to mix that in with some laughter," Cedric says. "But it’s the kind of laughter that was relatable to people who are going through the kind of stresses that we've seen and trying to figure out how a moment allows you to find some relief, and then allow you to laugh. So that's what I feel we were able to accomplish with this episode."
"There's so much heaviness and fear going on in the country, understandably so, and we like to provide half an hour of safe harbor and a place that people can reliably come to, to laugh and put their problems aside for 30 minutes and enjoy themselves," Reynolds adds. "We never want to be a show that is preachy, because I think that oftentimes you can actually lose your audience and they become less open to hearing the message because they feel that they're being proselytized to. But obviously, we are a show that does deal with the issues from time to time and we will continue to do that on our show."
Reynolds adds that his goal for the series has always been "to validate and recognize and honor the experience of our Black audience, while growing the perspective of our white audience."
"If you can win hearts, you can change minds," he says. "We want to reach out to our audience who doesn't have this familiarity with Black people in America or that experience and to shed more light on it in order to expand the perspective, give greater understanding, and hopefully create greater sympathy in that white audience in an effort to affect positive change."
In the end, Greenfield is proud of what The Neighborhood's writers, cast, and crew were able to accomplish with the season premiere. "Unfortunately, this is not an episode that anybody wants to make," he says. "We felt the responsibility to make it and because of the nature of our show, to lend our voice to what was happening. But it's unfortunate that we have to address some of these things, still, and so directly. It's a heavy episode. And it felt heavy when we were making it. We all wanted to bring an authenticity to it and bring an honesty to it. We had to make this episode."
The Neighborhood airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
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The Neighborhood (2018 TV series)