If you like Chris Rock -- and you really ought to -- you should be more than happy with "Everybody Hates Chris," the comedian's wonderfully original and very funny new sitcom. The UPN series, premiering tonight at 8 on Channel 20, depicts Rock's growing-up years, so he doesn't appear on it, but he narrates it to great effect. And the whole speedy half-hour is suffused with his rueful-quirky-goofy sensibility.
"Before I was a comedian, I thought the coolest thing that would happen to me was to be a teenager," Rock muses at the outset of tonight's episode. "Boy, was I wrong."
His remembrance is interrupted by the first appearance of his mother, Rochelle (Tichina Arnold).
"Chris! Get in the bathroom and wipe the pee off the toilet seat! Disgusting!"
Rochelle is scary -- a rough customer, more than able to stand up to her penny-counting husband, Julius (Terry Crews). ("That's 49 cent of spilt milk dripping all over my table," he cries after a kitchen accident. "Somebody gonna drink this milk!") It's Rock's gift, and the show's, that the two are depicted affectionately, but it's always clear that they weren't easy people to be around.
Young Chris is played by Tyler James Williams, who really seems as if he could grow up to be Chris Rock. The character can be mouthy with people his age, but even when he's living stoically through a siege of adult oppression, you can see the wheels turning -- this kid is smart and cunning. And Williams is a true discovery.
Chris is the firstborn, but his brother, Drew (Tequan Richmond), is taller and "so cool, he got girls at 10 that I couldn't get till I was 30." Their little sister, Tonya (Imani Hakim) -- Dad's favorite -- rounds out the brood. "Since I was the oldest, I had to be the emergency adult," Rock tells us.
The story opens in 1982, "the year I turned 13," and Rochelle has engineered a move from the projects to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The neighborhood turns out to be tougher than anybody realized, but Rochelle is ferociously determined that her three kids grow up the right way. Observing a graffiti artist at work, she announces, "If I ever catch any of y'all spraying on anybody's wall I'm gonna stick my foot so far up your behind, you'll have toes for teeth!"
Rock's narration sums it up: "She had a hundred recipes for whuppin' ass."
Rochelle's foot isn't the only threat to young Chris's behind. Disapproving of the nearby junior high, she sends her eldest to an otherwise all-white school in a distant part of the city where, he tells us, he could receive "not a Harvard-type education, just a not-sticking-up-a-liquor-store-type education." There he is beset by a pudgy and popular bully named Joey Caruso. "Nice shoes, Bojangles," the kid calls out to him -- an early salvo in what will become a very personal war.
Rock created the show with writer Ali LeRoi, and the two clearly cohabit the same wavelength. You could argue that the characters of Rochelle and Julius revert at times to stereotype, but only if you were determined to find fault. The cast is uniformly strong, and the foibled characters feel rooted in real life.
Through the history of the medium there have been classic TV families -- the Ricardos, the Petries, the Bunkers, the Huxtables, a few others. It's too early to say that the "Everybody Hates Chris" quintet will join that list. But it's a mark of the show's promise that the idea does come to mind.
Even the most elusive serial killers are going to be in trouble on CBS this season now that the "Criminal Minds" team is on the scene. This pompous, rather absurd hour-long drama, premiering tonight at 10 on Channel 9 (but airing henceforth on Wednesdays at 9), features a crew of crime-stoppers so brilliant they'd be the marvel of a Mensa meeting.
Mandy Patinkin, in what will presumably be a non-singing role, plays Jason Gideon, head genius of an FBI unit devoted to solving serial murders. (We know he's a genius because he's forever offering up enigmatic quotes from Emerson, Beckett, Churchill and Nietzsche.) He's been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for a few months -- something about a case in Boston that went sour -- but is lending his expertise to other agents.
He's just figured out that an at-large Virginia murderer known as the Footpath Killer probably has a stutter because he employs surprise, isolation and great force to overcome his victims. The stutter, Gideon concludes, prevents him from using charm and guile to lure them into harm's way.
Gideon is pulled off the footpath and back to the field by the case of the Seattle Strangler: Four women abducted and murdered over the preceding four months. This killer is particularly monstrous, keeping his victims alive and abusing them for a week or so before dispatching them. The imprisonment allows for some ugly and sadistic footage as the hour wears on.
So it's off to Seattle with a team of fellow agents, all young and beautiful, chief among them Aaron Hotch (Thomas Gibson, late of "Dharma & Greg"), Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) and Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler). They occasionally express concerns about Gideon's state of mind, but they also marvel at the lightning mental connections he's always making.
That's really saying something, because they all seem to be geniuses, too. When Hotch and Reid interview the boyfriend of the latest victim, they notice some Datsun Z-car literature in the apartment. Did she drive a Datsun? No, the boyfriend replies, but she wanted to buy one. In less time than it would take to type their lines, the two have ascertained -- correctly, of course -- that the killer lured her to meet him by advertising a Datsun online and promising her a test drive.
These boys could find Jimmy Hoffa on their lunch hour.
The atmosphere of the show is generally dark and portentous. Tonight's victim is displayed from time to time, sitting terrified and degraded in a cage, her eyes taped shut as the kidnapper taunts and bullies her. At one point, sickeningly, he takes her hand and trims her nails very short. These sequences are brief, and the creative team undoubtedly believes it's showing a lot of restraint. But you may find yourself asking, with so many TV crime-solvers to choose from, is this particular trip necessary?
Everybody Hates Chris (30 minutes) airs tonight at 8 on Channel 20.
Criminal Minds (60 minutes) airs tonight at 10 on Channel 9. Beginning next week it will air Wednesdays at 9 p.m.