I have to hand it to BET. The network knows what makes a quality show; they saved The Game, after all. They're also taking a step forward with a new comedy called Let's Stay Together - only the network's second scripted comedy series, and first in three years (since the series Somebodies in 2008). Set to debut Tuesday behind The Game, Let's Stay Together has a great chance at success, but needs more time before we know if it's going to distinguish itself.
The series centers around an opposites-attract couple in pediatrician Stacy (Nadine Ellis) and contractor Charles (Bert Belasco), who have recently become engaged after only six months together and discover that they may have rushed into that decision. Stacy is close to her younger sister Tasha (Joyful Drake), who is married to legal aid lawyer Jamal (The Good Guys' RonReaco Lee), with whom she fights as if they've been married forever. Charles, meanwhile, has a slightly dense younger sister named Kita (Erica Hubbard), who's out "celebrating her independence." In essence, the show ticks every single box when it comes to the various levels of relationships - just one of the conceits that makes it feel a little too much like every other sitcom about relationships.
To the show's credit, there's not any fuss made because it's a series about African-Americans; it's simply a sitcom and race is neither the show's heel nor its flag to wave. In this day and age, when so many people make such a big deal about the race of characters and even of the actors cast to play them, that's really refreshing. Yet Let's Stay Together does need to find something else to separate it from the pack. There are two major plots in the pilot episode, and neither strike home for the right reasons. Stacy becomes annoyed when she finds out Charles gave her the same engagement ring he once used to propose to an ex, who didn't even accept said proposal; maybe it's me, but I wouldn't make such a huge deal out of the situation as she does. There's a scene where she starts asking him questions about his previous relationships; if she needs to know him so well that she requires his entire romantic history, then why did she get engaged so quickly? It doesn't match up. Her moments of diva behavior actually make her somewhat unlikeable, which isn't a good thing for the lead character in a new series. To be honest, I felt more sympathy for Charles than anything else.
The other plot in the pilot concerns Jamal and Kita; he tells Charles that rather than be a legal aid lawyer, he wants to be a lounge performer. (Shades of Homer Simpson's strange career aspirations, anyone?) One night at their local hangout, Jamal manages to offend the resident piano player so much that he quits, and Jamal seizes the opportunity to replace him. This wouldn't be so bad - if RonReaco Lee isn't really playing, then he's the best fake piano player I've ever seen - except for that Kita decides to join him and thinks she can sing. She can't. She's so bad, I'm surprised glassware doesn't break. All the laughs out of this subplot come from Tasha having to make the two of them realize that they're not the rock stars they believe they are, and from Erica Hubbard being so willing to completely embarrass herself. It's worth considerable laughter, but I'm not sure that the show wants to rely on humiliating its characters to get its best jokes.
As I always caution when reviewing a pilot, first episodes are often the most uneven of a series, so there's a considerable chance that Let's Stay Together will improve. If anything, I'm glad to see RonReaco Lee back on TV so soon after he proved he needed to be a series regular with his work on The Good Guys. His Jamal and Joyful Drake's Tasha are the two characters that I engaged with most, leading me to wonder if maybe they should have been the stars of the show.
What's so wonderful about The Game is that its comedy isn't just funny, it's also compelling, and it's universal. There have been episodes of The Game where I've laughed, I've cried and I've cheered - in the same episodes. The characters are well-developed, feeling like people we want to invite into our home every week, and it doesn't matter what race they are. That's what makes that show so successful. Let's Stay Together doesn't play the race card, but it isn't engaging in any way, and - a fatal flaw for a sitcom - it's not that funny. Here's to hoping that it finds its laughter, and more importantly its heart, in the future.
Let's Stay Together premieres Tuesday at 11 PM ET/PT on BET.