Wanda Sykes headlines a Netflix multi-cam she co-created, starring Mike Epps and Kim Fields as an Indiana couple whose marriage becomes strained.
Cujo. Godzilla. A used Q-tip. In the new multicam comedy The Upshaws (Netflix), star and co-creator Wanda Sykes’ Lucretia gets compared to these (and some even less flattering objects and animals) by her ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Bennie (Mike Epps). Sykes is an executive producer on the series, which hails from her production company, so it’s fair to assume the comedian has at least some control over her onscreen role. Yet here she is, occupying the timeworn sitcom trope of the harridan — often a wife’s strident, (supposedly) unattractive ally who fails to meet a given show’s beauty standards and is endlessly mocked for it. (Also see: Marcy on Married … With Children, Mimi on The Drew Carey Show, Patty and Selma on The Simpsons.)
Lucretia often twists her lips in silent smirks that scream, “I told you so,” at her little sister Regina (Kim Fields) about Bennie’s shiftlessness. But the character’s throwback existence, which falls well short of a revision or subversion of the trope, underscores just how oldfangled The Upshaws feels. Save for one noteworthy update to the Black family sitcoms of yore, Sykes and her co-creator Regina Y. Hicks’ largely listless series would’ve fit right into the network TV comedy landscape 20 years ago.
That makes The Upshaws’ most striking character its protagonist: Bennie Upshaw, a father of three children with Regina, as well as of a teenage boy he sired with his former mistress, Tasha (Gabrielle Dennis). Bennie and Regina’s eldest, the 20-something Bernard (Jermelle Simon), resents his dad for not being around during his childhood, but the Upshaw patriarch has a second chance at fatherhood with 13-year-old Aaliyah (Khali Spraggins), elementary-school-age Maya (Journey Christine) and their half-brother Kelvin (Diamond Lyons). The Upshaws aren’t the Winslows, declares one character, contrasting themselves against the teeth-achingly sweet brood in Family Matters. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a dad as self-sabotagingly self-centered as Bennie among the Huxtables, the Bankses and most other Black sitcom families on ‘80s and ‘90s broadcast comedies.
But Bennie’s antiheroic qualities don’t make The Upshaws’ characters any less two-dimensional or its dusty jokes any funnier. (Along with the insults, the show regularly offers up groan-worthy lines like Bennie wagging his eyebrows at his wife with, “Forget the coffee — I got something hot and black waiting for you right now.”) The quips don’t improve, but the back half of the 10-part season does offer a serialized storyline about how Bennie’s tendency to use shortcuts in life — which often involve keeping secrets from his wife and culminate in a major betrayal of trust — leads to a second serious rupture in their marriage. All The Upshaws’ jokes might well be a couple decades old, but there’s also a laudable attempt here at a different kind of family sitcom.
A sullen Epps and an elbow-throwing Sykes embody personae we’ve long associated with those comedians. That makes Fields The Upshaws’ most reliable source of wildcard energy, especially when she gets to stretch beyond the confines of Regina’s upstanding motherhood. The actress makes the most of the twist that concludes the second episode, when Bennie takes Regina out to a restaurant they can’t afford, lured in by an offer to be “taken care of” by a woman who’s romantically interested in him. When the woman gets mad that Bennie brings his wife to her workplace, he — in classic Bennie fashion — tries to pass Regina off as his sister in the hopes of getting their extravagant meal comped.
Fields gets even better as The Upshaws leans more toward drama in its final episodes, and Regina is forced to reexamine her own reasons for excusing or enabling Bennie’s paternal failures. The scenes dedicated to the embattled Upshaw matriarch offer welcome relief from the volley of taunts and put-downs — and finally get at a desire for something more.