Craig Robinson is long overdue for a dedicated star vehicle. Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson wastes him almost completely. From its title to the fact that each episode allows Robinson to play one or more of his signature silly-sexy R&B songs, the show is clearly designed as a showcase for the multitalented performer—even as it undermines his comedic strengths at every turn.
The unaired pilot was executive-produced by Robinson’s erstwhile boss at The Office, Greg Daniels (and created by Office writer-producer Owen Ellickson). But this six-episode first (and surely only) season is under the care of showrunner brothers Mark and Robb Cullen, the co-authors of the universally disregarded Kevin Smith-Tracy Morgan-Bruce Willis buddy cop comedy Cop Out. The Cullens torpedo Robinson’s showcase by saddling him with a dull straight man role in a generic sitcom cobbled together from every school-set comedy imaginable.
Robinson plays, well, Craig Robinson, a struggling Chicago musician who supplements gigs with his comedy-funk band through intermittent turns as a substitute music teacher. The guitarist in that band, The Nasty Delicious, is Craig’s irresponsible brother Ben (Brandon T. Jackson). When Craig runs into the prom date he stood up (Meagan Good, wasted and dull in a thankless role) and finds out she’s now an English teacher at their alma mater, he cons his way into the school’s vacant music-education position. The setup suggests a lot of solid, if derivative, possibilities, but the show doesn’t take advantage of any of them.
Robinson heading back to his old high school echoes Welcome Back, Kotter, except that Craig’s past in the supposedly run-down school comes into play not at all. And the school—despite talk of Bill Nye being stabbed there once—is as sparsely clean as the set of Boy Meets World. The idea of an irrepressible Robinson teaching his musical mojo to a classroom of kids suggests School Of Rock, but the carefully heterogeneous teens are bland, and Robinson’s efforts to connect with them land with soporifically bland ease. A sly master of unpredictable improvisational naturalness, Robinson at the center of a workplace comedy is already a proven quantity. Unfortunately, he’s stifled playing straight man to a group of labored and leaden stereotypes, whose supposedly wacky hijinks force Robinson to stand aside for some of the hackiest jokes outside of Chuck Lorre-land. Also, despite the numerous aerial shots of the show’s putative Chicago home, Mr. Robinson invariably plays out in one of about six nondescript sets.
The supporting cast might be helpless against their characters and lines, but none of them acquit themselves in performance, with every joke pitched broad and loud, and each character composed of, at most, two character traits. Rick And Morty’s Spencer Grammer is a teacher who’s also a stripper, an improbable double life referenced in every third line she’s given. Asif Ali’s Indian math teacher is similarly defined by one or the other of those facts in almost every scene. Peri Gilpin’s ostensibly hard-assed principal—who should provide comic friction for iconoclast Robinson—is a tiresomely “jungle fever”-afflicted cougar and former rock groupie. (Her name’s Eileen so she can claim to be the inspiration for the title of that Dexy’s Midnight Runners song, and her groupie name is revealed to be “Tight-Fit Taylor.”) Benjamin Koldyke trots out another of his blandly wacky meathead numbers as the school’s kooky and reckless gym teacher, whose too-short shorts are supposed to be funny every time we see them. All of which could be the launching pad for Robinson to comment on the squares and loonies around him—except that the show keeps putting these nonentities front and center (The principal loses the superintendent’s dog! The teachers’ investment club is in trouble!) while Robinson plays nice and stands to the side on his own show.
And the dialogue. There’s hardly a line from Mr. Robinson’s six-episode run that doesn’t provoke cringing rather than laughs, with Robinson himself left to inject a little of his comic personality where he can. (His Office character Darryl Philbin would be shooting deadpan disgusted looks at the camera all over the place.) Jackson’s “Aw, hell no!” is an intended big catchphrase that falls flatter every time, as do lines like: “Once you go white, you’re gonna be all right,” “She’s like a gremlin—just add booze and she goes crazy,” and an exchange that works Grammer’s extracurricular activities into a tortured “poles”/“climate change” joke.
Even Robinson’s musical comedy is neutered here. In his stand-up performances, his faux-naughty soul come-ons emerge from the comedian’s stage persona, a cuddly but mischievous put-on artist. Here, playing in the blandest (and whitest) blues club in Chicago, Robinson’s numbers play out to dully appreciative applause. At one point, some real-life soul legends try to hire him away—an inexplicable get for a tinny comedy act in a 20-seat club. (It does, however, allow Robinson to sing co-lead on one of their classic songs, one of the few genuinely joyous musical moments in the show’s run.)
Robinson’s character, meanwhile, has one defining trait, summed up by his on-the-nose, “I got one foot in the music world, one foot in the teaching world, and its killin’ me.” Unfortunately, the show never finds any chemistry between Robinson and his music-class charges, even as they break into awkward, would-be heartwarming musical numbers designed to make him stay in every other episode. Any sense that Robinson will address the supposedly at-risk kids he’s come to love is relegated to two scattered lines in the entire season. Lecturing the one “streetwise” black student in his class with, “You’d be just another black kid thrown out of school for drugs” is as close as Mr. Robinson gets to letting its lead inject some real-world experience into his role. And there’s no real opposing force to Robinson’s absurdly easy entrée into a full-time gig: Gilpin’s principal almost immediately sinks back into the limp supporting pack, and Tim Bagley’s superintendent is too much of a goofy Nasty Delicious fanboy to pose any threat. And so an amiable, sexless, and improbably forgettable Robinson is set adrift in the show that bears his name.