How Netflix’s The Upshaws Shows The Family Sitcom Is Still Thriving

The second season of The Upshaws picks up where the previous season left off – with a little girl who invades the family and claims to be a long-lost daughter.

For Bennie Upshaw, it’s the latest in a series of devastating revelations that threaten to wipe out a fragile family already struggling to integrate an estranged adult son and an illegitimate teenage boy. Where a soap opera or pulpy drama might soberly approach these plot twists, The Upshaws play it for fun. When Bennie finds out that his oldest son is the little girl’s father, he indulges in a I-said-so moment before his complicated reality kicks in again. “Wait a minute,” he tells his grown son. “I thought you were gay?” (He is.)

Pioneering Tonight Show host Steve Allen once described comedy as “tragedy plus time”. But the Upshaws is more of an exercise in jerking off, narrowing the gap between tragedy and time enough to leave audiences doubting the genre they’re watching. Lately, it seems that only single-camera comedies get away with this sleight of hand. But The Upshaws shows that multi-camera sitcoms can also shed light on difficult subjects. And his place on Netflix is no small feat.

Netflix has been on a mission for years to find a niche in black sitcoms. During the pandemic, it acquired Moesha, Girlfriends, One on One and four more series. But their results in creating similar programming have been mixed. All About the Washingtons, starring Joseph Simmons (The Run in Run-DMC) and his wife Justine, starred as a bad version of their long-ago MTV reality show. Daddy stop embarrassing me! was a concept Jamie Foxx hatched with his daughter during the pandemic, and was arguably the Oscar winner’s biggest flop since 2018’s Robin Hood. Only Family Reunion holds up with a vibrant cast that includes Loretta Devine, Tia Mowry- Hardrict and Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree. Earlier this year, Netflix announced plans to renew the series for a fifth and final season.

But where Family Reunion sticks to obvious insanity (ex-American soccer player moves his family of six back to his parents), The Upshaws follows the much more provocative tradition of modern Norman Lear-style sitcoms like The Carmichael Show (which easily conflicts in nuanced nuances). family debates about birth control and school shootings) and Marlon (about the misadventures of a recently divorced co-parenting father). Created by comedian Wanda Sykes and top comedian Regina Y Hicks, The Upshaws is a working-class treatise that serves family drama that could sweep another sitcom under the rug: the adulterous husbands, the outdoor kids, the parenting regrets—the constant attempts to better to do, only to have life kick your ass again. After premiering last May, The Upshaws zoomed in to number two on Netflix’s most-watched list. The season two episode on June 29 put the show back in the streamer’s top 10.

Seven years after ABC canceled its Uncle Buck reboot after one season, Mike Epps finally gets a long runway to show off his comedy and dramatic chops as fast-talking Bennie. Sykes is devastatingly deadpan as Lucretia, the sister-in-law who was always wary of Bennie. Gabrielle Dennis, known from A Black Lady Sketch Show, crackles as Bennie’s baby mom Tasha.

But the heart of the series, and the Upshaw family, is Regina, the beleaguered matriarch. And it would be hard to name a better-suited actor for the role than Kim Fields — the sitcom doyenne who broke out as Tootie on The Facts of Life, stole hearts as Regine on Living Single, and even had a thwarted heroic arc on the eighth. season of the Real Housewives of Atlanta.

As Regina, Fields makes a game of how easily she can go from crazy to sultry to seething and back again—while illustrating why a woman of Regina’s vivacity and ambition would put up with a man as dodgy as Bennie, her biggest problem since. secondary school. But Bennie van Epps also has the best intentions to help his family – no matter how complicated it gets. It’s just that, well, he’s only human. And he has a relentless soft spot for the pleasures of the flesh.

Mike Epps and Khali Spraggins.
Mike Epps and Khali Spraggins. Photo: Lisa Rose/NETFLIX

But it’s not just the artists that give The Upshaws an edge. Since it’s on Netflix, it’s not tied to the standards of conventional sitcoms. Mom and Dad swear, Lucretia can’t stop dropping the N-word and the Upshaws’ teenage daughter Aaliyah (Khali Daniya-Renee Spraggins) references her high school crush turned half-brother as her ‘ghetto twins’. ‘. Worse, the laughter has been canned – a result of recording during Covid ban. It’s the stuff of Cliff Huxtable’s worst nightmares. But that’s exactly the point.

In the four decades since Lear’s Good Times signed on, black sitcom families have struggled to showcase black wealth; we’ve gone from George Jefferson running a thriving dry cleaning business to the Huxtables as seven-figure servants to the Johnson clan who roam their affluent LA convent in urban couture. Aside from the strange emotional setbacks, their lives are on the rise, and it’s the patriarch who keeps everyone on the right path. Meanwhile, The Upshaws pass by, suffer heavy losses and live under constant threat that Bennie’s relapse will blow up their fragile peace. It’s as real as a TV show gets. That it’s also laughing at itself just goes to show that the multi-camera sitcom still has some serious reach.

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