Lifetime’s Sherri is one of the strangest shows on TV right now. I mean, yeah, there are stranger, but Sherri seems to take place in the America that existed only in Barack Obama’s speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, a weird hybrid of red- and blue-state values that feels like nothing less than a series of long compromises ground out in the process of making the show between the star and the network the show airs on. This is yet another attempt to redo the traditional, multi-camera sitcom, and it’s yet another attempt to do that that isn’t as funny as it could be (though, to be fair, there are better jokes here than there are on any of the other attempted multi-camera shows this fall). But it’s something I might actually return to (something I’ve never said about a new Lifetime show, to my knowledge) because of how little it’s like pretty much anything else on television at the thematic level.
This weird collision is best expressed through two scenes. Sherri (named for the series’ star, Sherri Shepherd) is a show about a woman who’s just learned that her husband has cheated on her – with a white woman, no less – and gotten the woman pregnant. Naturally, this leads to the end of her marriage, and by the end of the episode, the story has essentially turned into How Sherri Got Her Groove Back, which isn’t so bad as a concept for an ongoing network sitcom (it’s basically Cougar Town, only with fewer scenes where Sherri says creepy things to her son). So, of course, at the episode’s end, Sherri and her friends go out to a club, hoping to get a little strange for themselves, and Sherri ends up hitting on a guy who’s much younger than her – at first she believes him to be 21, but his mother shows up and reveals he’s actually 17 – though, to be fair, he hit on her first.
This is the usual sitcom territory. Older women trying to get their lives back together after a divorce and doing so through comically inappropriate sexual escapades, and if you don’t laugh at the crazy middle-aged women thinking they can be young again, then the show has pretty much no time for you. Is there anything here that’s new at all? No, right down to the fact that the song Sherri and her crew walk into the club to is (sigh) Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” which is apparently contractually obligated to appear in every show this fall. Given the fact that the far more interesting stuff in the episode occurs when Sherri’s still raw about just how poorly she was treated by her husband, it’s also sort of depressing in its sameness to a lot of other shows. But it’s the usual sexual shenanigans you expect from a sitcom. No harm, no foul.
Except for an earlier scene, which suggests that what dedicated Christian Shepherd wants to do with the show is vastly different from what any television network is willing to put on the air. After word of Sherri’s husband’s infidelity (and I know I could learn his actual name, but the character mostly seems to exist solely to cheat on Sherri and spark her self-renewal), she goes in to her workplace and joins hands with her friends. They stand in a circle and pray fervently for Sherri to overcome her anger toward her husband and move on to a life post-her marriage, one that will be rewarding and enjoyable for the newly single woman. When the prayer circle is over, the three don’t mock what they did or the usefulness of it as would likely happen on any other show. (Nor is there a character who wanders in to accomplish this goal.) The only joke made is turned back on Sherri herself, who still wants to kill her husband after the prayer is over. This is pretty much just an act of workplace religiosity, presented without comment or scorn, believing in an activist Christian God, who’s right there to take care of whatever His followers might need taking care of. It’s the God a lot of Americans believe in, and it’s a God television mostly shies away from.
While my religious beliefs are not horribly in line with Shepherd’s (fairly liberal deist Christian, if you must know), I’m usually disappointed by the ways television portrays religion, which is something that’s an important part of a lot of people’s lives. TV characters are generally unlikely to be Christian, Muslim or atheist outside of the occasional Christmas episode, instead existing in a world where pretty much no one holds any religious beliefs (or lack thereof) at all. On network TV, you have proud atheist House and kinda sorta agnostic Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory and a handful of others (mostly on The Simpsons), but mostly, the religious on television hide it pretty well. (The only significantly religious characters in all of TV are the fundamentalist Mormons on Big Love, pretty much the only show on TV that manages to balance a healthy skepticism of its characters’ beliefs with a simultaneous respect for the fact that those beliefs are held deeply and dearly.) I’m not sure that every show on television needs to deal frankly with religion (or politics) but that the medium tries as hard as it does to avoid both subjects often makes it seem like it takes place in a world completely removed from our own.
Then again, Sherri also feels like it takes place in a world completely removed from our own, a world where impromptu prayer circles crowd up against going out clubbing to mack on random guys. To that end, it sort of feels like a Christian women’s Bible study group that’s received network notes, which makes everything going on in the episode feel more incongruous than it really needs to. I get that Sherri and her friends could be women who are both strong Christians and people who go out to find a variety of sexual partners, but the show isn’t really interested in examining the inherent hypocrisy of that idea. Just because there’s really nothing else like it on TV, I’m more interested in seeing a woman who believes deeply in God deal with having her marriage and her entire life rattled by something her husband does and seeing how that affects her faith, and it’s that material that keeps the episode humming along. Everything else just feels like it was added on by someone who cringes at the thought of the word “church.”
- It’s worth restating that this is probably the funniest multi-camera sitcom of the fall. Even if there are long stretches where there are no laughs to be had and most of the good jokes are in the promos, there’s a funny point-of-view here and some funny lines.
- Or maybe my problems with the pilot stem from the structure, which tries way too hard to both set up the premise – Sherri’s husband has left her! – and show us what a typical episode might look like – Sherri goes out clubbing! But to write that would have just been a repeat of the Accidentally on Purpose review.
- Also, it’s worth pointing out that this show seems dedicated to employing every former black actor from a popular network sitcom, including Theo from The Cosby Show (Malcolm Jamal-Warner), Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince of Bel Air (James Avery), the gay guy from Spin City (Michael Boatman) and the mom from Everybody Hates Chris (Tichina Arnold) in a bit part. All of these faces – even Theo’s! – are welcome after having been mostly slumming it as suspects on crime dramas over the years.