Nowhere to go but up for Chicago comedian ‘Lil Rel’ Howery’s new sitcom

SHARE Nowhere to go but up for Chicago comedian ‘Lil Rel’ Howery’s new sitcom
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Perhaps evoking his starmaking scenes in “Get Out,” Lil Rel Howery begins his sitcom “Rel” on the phone. | Fox-TV

First things first: I’m big on Lil Rel.

The West Side native has steadily built an impressive career, from his work on “Friends of the People” and “The Carmichael Show” to his solo standup special (which I loved) on Netflix.

In the last two years, the 38-year-old Milton “Lil Rel” Howery has broken through to the next level, emerging as a scene-stealing presence on the big screen.

First, there was Howery’s standout supporting work as TSA agent Rod Williams in “Get Out.” Howery’s best friend character provided the comic relief, the social commentary and even the heroism — even though most of the role consisted of Howery on the phone, by himself.

Then came “Uncle Drew,” and you could count me among those who doubted a series of admittedly creative soft drink commercials could be expanded to a feature film. But, thanks in great part to Howery’s work as the streetball team manager Dax, we got a warm, funny, inspirational, consistently entertaining movie.

So I was geared up to check out the pilot of “Rel,” the Fox sitcom that airs its pilot Sunday after NFL football (somewhere around 7 p.m. on WFLD-Channel 32), especially after learning that Rel created the show, which is set on the West Side and is loosely based on his own life.

Unfortunately, the show stumbles out of the gate.

For one thing, it’s taped on soundstage in Los Angeles — and I don’t know what the budget was for sets and props, but everything from Rel’s apartment to a neighborhood bar to a church to a barbershop looks flat and unconvincing. Even the background extras are often overdoing it, to the point of distraction.

Come on, Fox. Spend a little money.

More problematic is the broad, punchline-based, over-the-top dialogue; the cranked-up laugh track and the initial storylines.

Here’s the setup: Rel plays a nurse whose wife has left him after having an affair with his barber. She’s moved and taken the kids to Cleveland.

“I could fight for custody,” Rel says on the phone. (I liked the idea of kicking off the series with Rel on the phone, perhaps as a nod to his performance in “Get Out.”)

“I’ve seen friends do it. . . . They treat their kids like furniture, which she also took, by the way.”

Cue the uproarious laughter.

We also meet Rel’s little brother Nat (Jordan L. Jones), who’s just out of prison after serving time for dealing drugs. A running bit on the show has people saying Nat sold crack — and Nat saying it wasn’t that bad, he was only selling ecstasy.

Lil Rel Howery (from left), Sinbad, Jordan L. Jones and Jessica “Jess Hilarious” Moore star on “Rel.” | Fox-TV

Lil Rel Howery (from left), Sinbad, Jordan L. Jones and Jessica “Jess Hilarious” Moore star on “Rel.” | Fox-TV

Then, there’s the likable veteran Sinbad as the father of Rel and Nat. He meets the boys at church and berates his son:

“Your wife and your barber? All that money I spent on glasses when you were a child, and you didn’t see this coming?”

“Keep it down,” says Rel. “I don’t want everybody in my business like that.”

“You think I want people to know … I raised a son with no d—?” retorts his dad. “This is worse than the day I found out Nat was a crack dealer!”

“Ecstasy!” says Nat.

Cue the uproarious laughter.

“Rel,” which moves to its regular time slot of 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 30, has some moments, but overall it comes across as forced and curiously out of date. It has the look and feel of a not-great sitcom from the 1980s or 1990s.

There’s still room for improvement. Many a terrific sitcom has had a wobbly debut. (Watch the first episode of “Seinfeld,” and it hardly seems like the launch of a timeless classic.) Rel has talked about how future episodes will tackle serious subjects. In one show, a gang takes over a laundromat.

The cast, which also includes Jessica “Jess Hilarious” Moore doing nice work as Rel’s best friend Brittany, has the chops to do something funny and relevant.

If they’re given solid material to deliver.

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