The second season of The Upshaws picks up where the previous season left off – with a little girl who shows up to the family pretending to be a long-lost girl.
For Bennie Upshaw, it’s the latest in a series of devastating revelations that threaten to unravel a fragile family already struggling to integrate an estranged adult son and a teenager conceived out of wedlock. Where a soap opera or pulpy drama might approach these twists soberly, The Upshaws plays it for laughs. When Bennie finds out his eldest son is the little girl’s father, he opens up to a moment I told you before his convoluted reality resumes. “Wait a minute,” he told his adult 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 like an exercise in subtraction, bridging the gap between tragedy and time enough to leave audiences wondering what genre they’re watching. Lately, it seems only single-camera comedies have been able to get away with this sleight of hand. But The Upshaws shows that multi-camera sitcoms can also shed light on difficult subjects. And its place on Netflix is no small feat.
For years, Netflix has been on a mission to find a niche in black sitcoms. During the pandemic, it acquired Moesha, Girlfriends, One on One and four other series. But their results creating similar programming have been mixed. All About the Washingtons, which starred Joseph Simmons (the Run in Run-DMC) and his wife Justine, played like a bad version of their MTV reality show from long ago. 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 the family reunion lives on with a lively core 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 madness (the former American footballer brings his family of six home to his parents), The Upshaws falls into the much more provocative tradition of modern Norman Lear-style sitcoms like The Carmichael Show (who found easy conflict in nuanced family debates over birth control and school shootings) and Marlon (about a newly divorced father’s misadventures in co-parenting). Created by comedienne Wanda Sykes and comedy writer Regina Y Hicks, The Upshaws is a working-class treatise that serves up family drama that another sitcom could sweep under the rug: cheating spouses, the children of the outside, the regrets of raising children – the constant striving to do better only to have life kick your ass again. After premiering last May, The Upshaws reached No. 2 on Netflix’s most-watched movies list. The June 29 release of Season 2 put the show back in the streamer’s top 10.
Seven years after ABC canceled its reboot of Uncle Buck after just one season, Mike Epps finally gets a long run to display his comedy and dramatic chops as the fast-talking Bennie. Sykes is deadpan as Lucretia, the sister-in-law who has always been suspicious of Bennie. Gabrielle Dennis, of A Black Lady Sketch Show fame, crackles as Bennie’s baby mother, Tasha.
But the heart of the show, and of the Upshaw family, is Regina – the beleaguered matriarch. And one would be hard pressed to name an actor better suited 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 hero arc on the Real Housewives of Atlanta’s eighth season.
As Regina, Fields makes a play on how easily she can go from daft to sultry to bubbly and back again – while also illustrating why a woman of Regina’s vitality and ambition would put up with a man so unworthy of her. trust that Bennie, his main push since high school. But Epps’ Bennie, too, has the best intentions of being a breadwinner for his family – no matter how messy it gets. It’s just that, well, he’s only human. And he has a weakness for the pleasures of the flesh.
But it’s not just the performers that give The Upshaws its edge. Because it’s on Netflix, it’s not beholden to conventional sitcom standards. Mom and dad swear, Lucretia keeps dropping the N-word, and the Upshaws’ teenage daughter Aaliyah (Khali Daniya-Renee Spraggins) refers to her high school crush-turned-stepbrother as her “ghetto twin.” “. Worse, the laughs are canned – a consequence of recording during the Covid ban. It’s the stuff of Cliff Huxtable’s worst nightmares. But that’s exactly the point.
In the four decades since signing Lear’s Good Times, black sitcom families have strived to showcase black prosperity; we went from George Jefferson owning a thriving dry-cleaning business to the Huxtables being seven-figure white-collar workers to the Johnson clan roaming around their well-heeled LA cloister in urban couture. Strange emotional setbacks aside, their lives progress on an upward curve, and it’s the patriarch who keeps everyone on the straight and narrow. Meanwhile, the Upshaws survive, suffer heavy casualties, and live under the constant threat of Bennie’s regression shattering their fragile peace. It’s as real as a TV show. The fact that he’s poking fun at himself just goes to show that the multi-camera sitcom still has some serious reach.