A funny portrait of black life on the “south side”

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Guess it’s fair to refer to “South Side,” a series set in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, as a workplace comedy. Simon (Sultan Salahuddin) and Kareme (Kareme Young) are best friends who reluctantly point to Rent-T-Own, a shady furniture and appliance rental service. Its name, a Rent-A-Center parody, is the show’s bitter, primitive joke: a mall where the real product is debt. “South Side” draws a large part of its black black humor from the meetings between its protagonists and the delinquent tenants: the physical aspect of the product recovery allows so much burlesque. The pizzazz of the show’s criticism is reminiscent of other work culture satires, such as “Reno 911” and the genre shift “The Office”. But the creators of “South Side” – Salahuddin, his brother Bashir, and Bashir’s writing partner Diallo Riddle – cast a wider net: They crafted a fun portrayal of black life in the Second City.

“South Side” is now an HBO Max original; its second season premiered on the platform last month. But the show debuted, in 2019, on Comedy Central, where it joined a roster of excellent and under-watched indie sitcoms including “Workaholics”, “Detroiters” and “The Other Two.” (“The Other Two” also made it to HBO Max.) In recent years, Comedy Central has become an incubator for writers of jokes – stubborn classics who enjoy, above all else, provoking belly laughs. Bashir and Riddle are comedy and TV geeks: In the same month they blessed us with “South Side,” the duo released “Sherman’s Showcase” on IFC, a loving, layered send-out of variety shows from the 70s.

While Riddle-Salahuddin’s productions entertain viewers of all races, make no mistake, the fun and prank is designed to appeal to black American audiences. Either you get the references – to the preparation culture, to the funeral culture – or you don’t. Such cheerful specificity is a rarity, and so, after the first seasons of “South Side” and “Sherman’s Showcase,” fans braced themselves for the shows to enter the holy grail of a single season.

The first season of “South Side” can certainly stand on its own. Laughter comes early and easily. In the pilot, Kareme and Simon give up their jobs at Rent-T-Own to pursue higher ambitions: Kareme dreams of a career in astronomy and Simon aspires to the white collar life. But none of them succeeds; Simon can’t pass a background check and Kareme finds out that astronomers are racist. The guys sneak back to their old jobs, and their boss, Quincy, Kareme’s twin brother (Quincy Young), punishes them with a dreadful task: they must get an Xbox from the terrifying Shaw (LaRoyce Hawkins), a sexy gangster with a toothpick stuck in his teeth. “When you were a little buddy, did you always dream of harassing black people for their devices?” Shaw asks Simon, causing an identity crisis in the Ascending Schlemiel. “You are succumbing to the system,” Shaw continues. “I’m bypassing the system. I circumcise the system.”

American sitcoms are known for their own kind of workaround: getting around money issues. Even when lower class characters are portrayed, you never have to worry about repossessing their homes. The stakes of “South Side” are however tangible: Simon spends a night in prison, for example, because he owes child support. The consistency of the show’s hilarity is therefore a miracle. Bashir Salahuddin and Riddle, obsessed with the sharp edges of ’70s pop culture, bring Norman Lear’s bite to wacky reflections on American inequality. “The Day the Jordans Drop,” a Season 1 episode, is a masterful satire on sneaker fanaticism that culminates in a risky joke based on “Sophie’s Choice”. The dig would be unpleasant if the writing weren’t so obviously steeped in insider familiarity. “South Side” is full of scammers thirsty for the American Dream as it has been filtered to them. Kareme and Simon are involved in several enrichment projects: giving Viagra to excited elderly people; peddle a hair cream that creates instant waves but also inadvertently attracts bats; sale of flavored popcorn outside a local cinema. “Tuscan pineapple? »Asks a client approvingly after tasting it. “You are an innovator. “

In some ways, “South Side” is a room with animated sitcoms. There’s the controlled sprawl of wacky characters, the grainy image of a city and its people, the glut of meticulously crafted gags and cultural references, the wacky and existential interplay of humor, the shaving of political princes. dirty. The universe of the series is as dense and technically skillful as that of the “Simpsons”. We have the cops, Agents Goodnight and Turner (Bashir Salahuddin and Chandra Russell, Bashir’s wife); the meowing politicians, Allen Gayle and Adam Bethune (Diallo Riddle and Langston Kerman); Shaw and his bullies; the pissy office worker, Stacy (Zuri Salahuddin, sister of Bashir and Sultan); and a bunch of good kids. These characters have an inner life, but they also behave and even look like cartoons. In one episode, a mob of vengeful clowns descend on the neighborhood, wreaking havoc among cops and citizens; when a wardrobe falls on Simon, you almost expect his eyes to pop out like Wile E. Coyote’s. The background is thick with the activity of lovable monsters – Scary Barry, Red Cornrows, Trapper (who sells furs, by the way, not drugs). This madness is funny, but it’s also oddly literary, a kind of translation of the hyperbolic into black American humor.

No scene demonstrates this quite as well as one in which Officer Turner, a sort of vulture, spontaneously purchases – using Venmo – a seedy house from an old man sitting on his front steps. Turns out there’s a tenant inside, Miss Dorothy, a legendary civil rights leader, who refuses to pay the rent. Turner tears the old lady apart, who strikes back, and their fight escalates with the appearance of a gun, and the funniest line I’ve heard in years: “Fuck Coretta Scott King!” You might know her as King, but I just know her as Retta. I always thought she was so funny. Well the bitch never made me laugh once! By farce, the show steals the moralizing discourse.

“South Side” has many full story arcs, and yet it retains the spontaneous energy of a skit. Bashir Salahuddin and Riddle have assembled a troupe of living artists, professional and amateur, unknown and famous. The star is Russell, as Turner. She’s hip a lot like Olivia Pope: cunning, sane, venal, sexually dominant. We meet her when she’s on patrol, using her police siren to hail a “zaddy”. In a show that constantly plays the Dozens, Turner reigns supreme; there’s a tinge of sadistic in the way his jagged tongue comes for Officer Goodnight, a stuck, self-loathing drug. But the spectacle also gives it a complex interiority. During a Spades tournament, she is taunted by her slimy pastor dad: “I don’t even say a po-po to my daughter. Hold us back, kill us, everything. Turner visibly shrinks. The moment is realistic. All the elation of the black cop has clouded his inner torment: Turner’s stampede, more than anyone else’s, demands a human toll.

Sultan and Bashir Salahuddin are from Chicago and “South Side” is filmed on location. No detail is too trivial for the decorators who arrange paintings with a little distended realism. I also want to praise the costume design, especially Turner’s parody genius of wig cycling, how ingrained he is in daytime black femininity. My favorite cold opening involves Stacy and Turner shopping for human hair extensions at a Vietnamese beauty store. “It’s that real uncut virgin,” Stacy said, licking the fibers.

Idealizing your love object is a cowardly way of loving – “South Side” is a teasing ode to the place for which it is named after. From time to time, the series features segments of television news, in order to move away from its point of view and ventrilate the sensationalist outlook of the city. These are the show’s version of a fair rant. In a Season 2 episode, a character reads a fictional autobiography of the controversial Lori Lightfoot, titled “If I Did It: How I Became Mayor.” After Gayle, an upstart alderman, makes a disastrous environmental deal with the Mafia that runs the city, his thugs go to a local school: “Hey kids, do you like oil? Let’s play some exercise music! The children roar. The writers brilliantly blur the line between stereotype and reality; “South Side” might be mean, but it has a strong moral core. ??

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