Fans of the 2002 comedy Barbershop should be warned that Showtime’s sitcomized version is missing the following elements that were key to the movie’s success: Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Eve, believability, a sense of place, and a sense of humor. This is worth mourning because Barbershop was not just smart and funny but surprising — an ”urban” (that’s marketing-speak for African-American) comedy that offered a talented ensemble’s great, easy interaction, pungent and sometimes jaw-dropping commentary on sex, race, politics, class, and history (thank you, Cedric!), and an atmospheric take on African-American life in a genre that too often settles for the crass antics of a Tyler Perry.
There is no evidence that the minds behind Barbershop (the Showtime version) noticed any of this; what seems to have quickened their appetites was that the movie’s one-set location makes it easy to reimagine as a sitcom. That, and an opportunity to vulgarize every element. The movie’s characters — Calvin the put-upon barbershop owner, Eddie the elder loudmouth, Terri the angry chick, Isaac the white fish-out-of-water — are intact (though none of the original cast has stuck around), but they’ve all been coarsened and cheapened. Now Calvin makes raw sex jokes about his wife, Eddie riffs on Star Jones’ husband and Michael Jackson (now there’s a daring target), and Isaac, underplayed with such gentle mellowness by Troy Garity in the movie, has been turned from a nice little essay on what it’s like to be the white minority having to prove oneself in a black universe into a yammering Vanilla Ice-flavored sight gag (he thinks he’s black! but he looks like Matt Damon! get it?).
To prove its cable-readiness, Barbershop offers curses, nipples, and a stream of the kind of lightly homophobic humor that’s a reliable go-to for any sitcom writer who isn’t willing to work to find a laugh anywhere else. Each episode begins with unnecessary voice-over from Calvin (Omar Gooding, Cuba’s brother, who’s talented but can’t quite pull off the good-natured grumpiness that Ice Cube, a series exec producer, brought to the role) that runs along the lines of ”When you run a neighborhood barbershop, that makes you the center of the urban universe.” Is there any surer sign that a show doesn’t trust its audience? Funny how in 11 years of Cheers the writers never felt compelled to have Sam Malone explain to us that a local bar offers an amusing microcosm of colorful characters.
Mindful of the publicity won by Cedric’s rants about Rosa Parks in the movie, the creators of Barbershop the series have clearly been encouraged to push the envelope, but when they try, they just rip through the bottom. Episode 2 features the arrival of a popular African-American clothing chain called Niggaz (the occasion for about 50 spectacularly dull-minded ”Niggaz is movin’ in!” jokes); the gang is excited until they find out that the owner is…Korean. It’s so bent on being daring (daring circa 1989’s Do the Right Thing) that it forgets to be funny. At one point, Calvin says, ”Even the cast of Girlfriends‘d be neck-rolling their sassy heads in disgust.” You bet they would — and then they’d change the channel.