When TV experts begin looking back at 2015 in a few weeks, it’s likely that they’ll applaud NBC for taking a chance on a rising black stand-up comedian, putting him at the center of a show that restored topicality to primetime comedy. With grace, specificity, and humor, the show tackled a different talking point in every episode, honestly engaging issues of racial injustice, gender identity, and gun violence. It never felt like a lecture, but it didn’t seem like a put-on, either. Its varying definitions of “the truth” defined the characters; they didn’t provide an entry point for cheap provocation.
While audiences wait for the second season of that sitcom, The Carmichael Show, The Peacock offers up Truth Be Told, essentially a sitcom-length adaptation of “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong” starring stand-up comic Tone Bell and created by sitcom journeyman DJ Nash. Truth Be Told was originally picked up with the hysterically bland title People Are Talking, but the rejiggered pilot suggests that NBC skipped over a more obvious moniker: Chatty Assholes.
But there’s a lie at the core of Truth Be Told’s purportedly radical honesty: Its real talk is all manufactured blarney. These characters discuss topics that are verboten among polite company—politics gets a pass in the first episode, but religion comes up, along with race and sex—only because of a paper-thin premise. The implication is that Russell (Bell), Mitch (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Angie (Bresha Webb), and Tracy (Vanessa Lachey) can be so open with one another because they’re such close friends. But judging by their interactions with other characters, it’s more likely that they’ve just alienated everyone in Los Angeles with a modicum of tact.
The two couples are next-door neighbors in a studio-lot-bland neighborhood, and the pilot matches cookie-cutter storylines to their cookie-cutter surroundings. Mitch and Tracy desperately need a night off from parenting 4-year-old Sadie; Russell and Angie, though otherwise happily married, are weathering Russell’s distrust of Angie’s male co-worker—who’s also her ex. These stories lock into a sitcom Voltron when Angie’s co-worker scores four tickets to a Jay Z show, which Mitch and Tracy can only attend if they find a new babysitter. If only the sitter they hired didn’t look so much like this one porn star Russell remembers.
It’s a tremendous amount of plate-spinning, around which Nash builds the nattering truth-telling that gives the show its title. Sensitive subjects are broached, judgements are leveled, and everyone winds up with different varieties of egg on their face. Russell tries to intercept texts from Angie’s ex, but gets caught in the act. No one can remember the name of the Orthodox Jewish family across the street. Mitch dresses down a valet for assuming Russell wouldn’t own a Porsche, then learns it was the music playing inside the car that led to the valet’s conclusion: John Mayer, on CD. (In 2015?)
It’s a natural fit for Bell, the stand-up comedian who, in Truth Be Told, plays one on TV. Unfortunately, his most frequent verbal sparring partner is Gosselaar, who hasn’t been in a multi-camera sitcom since Saved By The Bell and clearly has some rust to shake off. In the spirit of honesty: Bayside High was the worst training ground imaginable for this type of show, and Gosselaar’s lines in the pilot always feel like they’re one beat away from a “time out.” Other ghosts of NBC sitcoms past haunt Truth Be Told, too: Friends irrevocably altered the multi-camera comedy when it landed six very funny actors who also happened to be highly telegenic people. Two decades into the reign of the pretty people comedy, Truth Be Told dilutes the chemistry between Bell and Webb by forcing them to be best friends with Gosselaar and Lachey, who appear to be cast for looks first and comedic abilities second.
The punchlines they’re given aren’t all duds: Mitch, Russell, Angie, and Tracy’s candor isn’t particularly illuminating, but the premiere episode makes the occasional good use of character traits (largely at the expense of Mitch’s squareness and/or white guilt) and wields its callbacks with potency. Truth Be Told knows what type of show it is, even as its central gimmick cuts the legs out from under the show. The gang’s wacky hijinks set up farcical convolutions, none of which can play out because these characters are always saying what’s on their mind. Nobody here can keep a secret, which slams the door shut on Truth Be Told’s version of a farce before the characters can do any door-slamming themselves. There’s no tension to Russell and Mitch’s porn-star-babysitter suspicions because the show sets them up to blab those suspicions from the very start. When the idea is that these characters are truthful to a fault, there’s no expectation that they’d ever lie to save face.
Of course, the most-talked-about political candidate in the United States rode that same “says what he feels” strategy straight to the top of the polls, so maybe Truth Be Told is arriving at just the right time. And if it’s not: Maybe NBC can find a nice spot for Bell and Webb in Jerrod Carmichael’s neighborhood.