Friday, August 4, 2017

'DETROIT:' A Compelling, Appalling, Terrifying Movie Masterpiece


As I drove across the state of Michigan I kept saying to myself, "Maybe if I keep believing the name of the movie is really CLEVELAND, I'll be less defensive. At least I want to keep an open mind."

The object of my magical thinking was DETROIT, director Kathryn Bigelow's dramatic and dramatized take on one of the lesser-known incidents (unless you're from the Motor City) that emerged from the Detroit riot of 1967, the violent uprising that today competes with Los Angeles '92 as the deadliest and most destructive civil disturbance in American history.

The film had its world premiere not in Hollywood, but at a jam-packed Fox Theatre July 2017 in downtown Detroit. The premiere was a first for the city, and I essentially made a one-day, 800-mile round trip car ride just to sit in that historic audience.

I review films on The Pulse With Karen Dumas every Friday at 5 on 910am Superstation in Detroit (forgive the shameless plug), and to miss this advance screening, with this audience in this city, would have been nothing short of heresy. Even if that wasn't the case, however, I knew I just had to be there.

Now Bigelow, director of such war-torn blockbusters as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, is the first woman ever to win an Academy Award for directing (for Hurt Locker), so I was pretty sure I wasn't traveling to DETROIT to see a new rom-com. However, though I was born in West Michigan, I consider myself an adopted Detroiter in spirit. I lived more than half my life in that city. I became a man in that city. And, like most Detroit residents and expatriates, I am viciously protective of its image and reputation.

Detroit has been the punchline of way too many jokes, crapped on more frequently than a car windshield. As a writer with a Detroit history, I was asked more than once this year to research and write articles on the 50th anniversary of the riot, so details remain fresh in my brain. (Including a cover story I penned for the Wayne State University alumni magazine.)

And now some buzzy LA director – and a white director, at that – is coming to town to revise our history regarding the Algiers Motel, where three young black men were slaughtered by Caucasian cops at the height of the '67 uprising and eventually acquitted at trial? O...M...D.

(Oh...My...Detroit.)

Let's just say my BS detector was in the red zone. Deep breaths...deep breaths. The name of this film is CLEVELAND...CLEVELAND....



The first thing that surprised me upon arriving in downtown Detroit was that, outside of the Midwestern glitz and red carpet hubbub directly in front of the Fox, there didn't seem to be any excitement – or tension – about the film around the city. The bartender at the Hockeytown Cafe, right across the street from the theater, said she had no idea a movie named DETROIT even had been made, much less was having its debut next door. "Hey, I don't watch TV," she explained.

Well, surely that must be the reason, because rarely will you see a movie you don't know that much about receive more advance TV hype than this one. There seemed to be a DETROIT promo airing on one channel or another every half-hour leading up to its Aug. 4, 2017 national release. John Boyega, the GQ cover boy of the month and Black Male Actor of the Moment, is talking about his work on the film to anyone who'll give him a microphone.

Producers had to do this, I'm guessing, because they have a double burden to overcome: making moviegoers who have a negative image of Detroit, or no opinion at all, care about the story, while not automatically pissing off the legion of people who deeply care about the city.

Michael Eric Dyson, the Detroit-born author, academic and broadcaster who served as unofficial local concierge for the film crew, proclaimed Bigelow "a hero" for bringing the story of the Algiers Motel to the big screen during his fire-and-brimstone introduction at the Fox. "Now some people say, 'Why a white woman got to do it?'" he asked, echoing the question many have already posed. "To clean up the mess that white people made! Did she use and leverage her white privilege to identify with black and brown people who have been demonized?"

For her part, Bigelow took a turn on stage to graciously thank her hosts. "Detroit has a complex past but I think also a very bright future, and the credit for that lays nowhere else but with its people."

John Boyega, he of new Star Wars fame, stars in DETROIT.
So complex, perhaps, that the film opens with a rather simplistic, animated segment to bring the viewer up to speed with the Detroit of 1967, a city in which the African American population had swelled to at least 40 percent while nearly 90 percent of the city's police department remained white. Tension was virtually inevitiable.

When a neighborhood community center – often misidentified as a "blind pig," slang for an unlicensed after-hours bar – is raided in the middle of a welcome home celebration for two Vietnam War returnees (one portrayed by Anthony Mackie of the Captain America franchise, one of the few faces besides Boyega's you may recognize), that tension spills out of the building and into the street.

Playing real-life private security guard Melvin Dismukes, Boyega attempts to protect his employer's business from the increasingly violent throng while playing peacemaker, and being called an Uncle Tom for his troubles. During his efforts, however, he unwittingly becomes an eyewitness to events unfolding inside the Algiers Motel, where members of the fledgling R&B group the Dramatics have decamped after their concert has been evacuated.

With a sea of white Detroit Police officers, state troopers and national guardsmen swarming the streets, nerves on overdrive and reports of snipers in the air, someone inside the Algiers thinks it would be hilarious to shoot a starter pistol out of a window. (Note: this would not be a wise idea even today.) The police response is swift, brutal – and shocking.

A three-officer team led by patrolman Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter) – his real name changed to protect the guilty – demands to know where the gun is, who's got it, and who shot at the cops. And they're not taking "I don't know" for an answer.
Anthony Mackie's character goes from one war to another.

DETROIT begins with the deafening noise, scattershot violence and breakneck action of a city gone mad, then screeches almost to a halt as it introduces us to the cast of characters inside the motel. And then it does what only the best movies can do: it transports us.

In an extraordinarily long scene that feels like an excruciatingly long night, we are in the Algiers Motel, standing alongside the row of suspects lined up against a wall. It's practically Hitchcockian: I kept recalling the master's suspense classics like Rear Window and Lifeboat, in the way Bigelow is able to sustain so much riveting tension and emotion in such a small, enclosed set.

The black men are immediately presumed guilty; the two young white women who were in their company are instantly branded as prostitutes, or worse. With every unprovoked assault, as the intimidation becomes more harrowing and the actions of the police officers grow more random and barbaric, I could hear audience members of all races and ages groan, gasp and wince at every appropriate moment. And any person of color in that audience who can say they weren't thinking of Philando Castile or Alton Sterling or Sylville Smith or so many others, well....

This is man's basic inhumanity to man, power unchecked and nearly limitless against the ultimately powerless. It's an American horror story from 50 years ago that could happen again tomorrow. Poulter, that skinny kid from We're the Millers, appears to grow horns as we watch, becoming the epitome of Satan himself, his arched eyebrows seemingly adding to his menace.

(And while I'm thinking about it, Poulter is British. Boyega: British. What, only British actors can play Detroiters? The closest geographic connection among the lead actors is Algee Smith, the Dramatics lead singer, who hails from Saginaw. Since this film is going to bear the name of the city and project an image to the world long after we're all gone, it would have been nice to have someone from Detroit in DETROIT.)

In an interview on CBS This Morning, and in his British accent, Boyega explained, "In any movie like this, you have to keep the level of intensity to assure that there's an emotional truth to the characters you're playing. You want to make sure that you're doing them justice, as we are playing real people. It's tiring. You get hungry real quick. But it's worth it."

DETROIT is tiring. Exhausting, in fact. You get hungry real quick: hungering to get out of that space, but eager to tell others about it and perhaps experience it again. It's a cinematic thrill ride. And it's well worth it.

It isn't the best movie I've seen this year – Get Out, the tour de force from first-time black director Jordan Peele, still wears that crown. But DETROIT managed to completely turn around one skeptical, suspicious Detroit lover and have him singing its praises. That's no small accomplishment.

On The Big Glowing Box Remote (out of 10) 8.5 clicks

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Adios, Joe Wade Formicola: The Country Will Never Be the Same

Joe Wade Formicola, 1949-2017
On June 21, the legends of country music radio and several of the artists they helped make into stars gathered at the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt for the 2017 Country Radio Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Among this year’s honorees was legendary air personality Joe Wade Formicola, who as far as I’m concerned made country cool in Detroit as the morning-drive host for WWWW-FM (W4 Country) and later WYCD-FM in the 1980s and ‘90s.

That era was my heyday (if I had one) as the radio beat reporter and columnist for The Detroit News, then “the largest evening circulation newspaper in America.” I wrote about Joe Wade frequently in those days and talked to him whenever I was fortunate enough to cross his path. 

I was no country music fan by any stretch, but it was almost impossible not to like Joe. He was funny, loud, outspoken, the kind of shot-and-a-beer guy you’d enjoy sitting next to in a bar. His personality meshed seamlessly with listeners in his hometown of Detroit. I always thought Formicola was an odd name for a country DJ, but Joe Wade wasn’t about to change it. That had been his name since he grew up on the East Side, and he wanted his people to know he was one of them.

Being in, on and around radio most of my life has made me something of a student of voices, and Joe had one of the greatest: resonant, mesmerizing, slightly conspiratorial. He was a round mound of sound, breaking any stereotyped image of a country music disc jockey. Joe Wade Formicola was an on-air personality, a masterful communicator, who happened to play country music. 

After years as a typical radio nomad, working at stations from Flint to Houston, in 1987 he finally landed back in the Motor City where he knew the backstory and how to pronounce the names of the streets. As he once said, “Detroit loves Detroit,”and he made the most of the relationship: by 1988 he was the CMA (Country Music Association) Personality of the Year.

Joe Wade, dashing Urban-ite (CMR Nashville)

I was able to play up his award fairly large in the paper. It wasn’t difficult: he was a native Detroiter who had captured a major national award, and I had some say over the broadcast coverage back then. So naturally, this year when Joe Wade achieved the pinnacle of his profession, the most prestigious honor in country radio, he reached out to me from Raleigh-Durham, N.C., where he was on the air at WPTF-AM and nationally syndicated on the Dial-Global network, to see if I could whip up a similar media blast for him back in the D.

This time, it wasn't so easy. Many years had passed since I held any sway in getting a news item into the News – or any other media outlet, for that matter. I don't even live in the city any longer. Joe was a legitimate Big Local Personality in Detroit for quite some time, but he wasn't on the air there anymore, fresh-faced new editors didn't know his name, radio isn't as sexy as TV or movies.... 

Even though Joe was a native son, try as I might I could not generate any interest for his HOF achievement in his hometown publications – and that's the one place he wanted the recognition most dearly, to show the high school buddies and extended family how far he had come. 

So for weeks after learning of his induction, Joe would send me a text message every few days. 

"Did you get the press releases?" he asked. "Any takers?" "Any news?"

The last message I received from Joe simply read: "No interest, I guess." 

I felt terrible. I had totally failed him. I could feel the heartbreak and disappointment between his keystrokes.

Then he died.

And I bet he still couldn't get a decent spread in the Detroit dailies.

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So this is part appreciation, part apology. Suddenly, tragically, unexpectedly, Joseph Wade Formicola passed away Tuesday night, May 30, 2017 – just three weeks before he was scheduled to walk across the stage at the Nashville Marriott and bathe in the glow of his Hall of Fame enshrinement. (A memorial service is planned for this Saturday, May 8 in Raleigh; details below.) 

At least Joe got to know about his induction before the end arrived. But, man....

Anna Formicola, Joe's youngest sister, has been extraordinarily open and gracious with this total stranger as we tempered our grief by sharing memories of Joe Wade. 

"He was the glue of our family, and he was just hilarious," recalls Anna, a veteran investment advisor in the San Francisco area. "And he was the historian of our family. He knew everything about every relative. It's such a great loss to our family...and to the radio world, too."
Joe Wade in Younger Days, and in His Element.
Anna says the last time she spoke with Joe, a week before his death, they were busily coordinating travel schedules to get their mother and three siblings to Nashville for the ceremonies. "He had all these plans, you know?" she reflects. "He just wasn't expecting this."

Do any of us? 

About a month prior, Anna says, Joe contracted a severe case of bronchitis – so much coughing and wheezing that a visit to his doctor was inescapable. After running a battery of tests, the doctor detected something he hadn't been looking for: Joe had an irregular heartbeat.

"The doctor said they could treat it with medication, but he needed to lose weight. He needed to do his part," Anna relates. Joe and his wife, Ellen, dutifully went on a diet. They even visited a sleep clinic to see if that might help. On May 30, the couple had a followup appointment with a cardiologist.

They took an EKG. "The cardiologist said, 'Your heart is extremely erratic. I am calling an ambulance. You need to get to the emergency room,'" Anna says. As they rolled his gurney onto the ambulance, Joe caught Ellen's eye, smiled and gave her a thumb's-up.

"I'll see you at the hospital," he said.

He never made it there. Joe died en route.

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I told Anna that Joe Wade frequently invited me as a call-in guest on his weekend talk show in Raleigh to answer listener questions about movies and TV. With his typical flair for hype and hyperbole, he would introduce me by declaring, "NOBODY knows more about movies, television and media than Jim McFarlin! He's the best! Ask him anything you want!"

That wasn't true when I was covering entertainment on a daily basis for more than 20 years, and it sure as heck isn't true now that I only do a half-hour weekly segment on Detroit's 910amSuperstation. So whenever I did Joe's show, I tried to sound calm over the phone but he never knew I was flailing around my office like a toddler trying to escape a bath. My computer, iPad and phone all were set on different web pages while my desk was stacked high with reference materials, trying to anticipate any question that could possibly be asked! 

But that was Joe: always building others up, never jealous of sharing the spotlight, loyal to a fault. He appreciated what few things I did to promote his on-air career in Detroit, when he and I both were in our prime, and he never forgot them.

Now we need to help ensure that he will never be forgotten. Anna is spearheading a GoFundMe campaign to establish the "Joe Wade Formicola Broadcasting Scholarship Fund" at Specs Howard School of Media Arts, the renowned trade school in Southfield, Mich., that Joe credited with launching his radio career. Anna hopes his legacy can help other aspiring radio talents launch theirs. 

You can make a contribution to fund the scholarship by clicking here. And you know I wouldn't ask you to do anything I haven't already done myself.

A memorial service for Joe is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, July 8, at Hope Community Church, 821 Buck Jones Rd., in Raleigh. (Church phone: (919) 532-0620.) I predict there will be hundreds of attendees from the world of radio and all walks of Joe Wade Formicola's life. And they will be "attendees," not "mourners." I also predict it will be a joyful, upbeat occasion with a lot of laughs.

Joe wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Trial(s) of Bill Cosby...Through the Eyes of a Saddened Fan

The event some people thought would never happen is taking place this week: the sexual assault trial of Bill Cosby is unfolding inside the Montgomery County Courthouse near Philadelphia.

If you're a child of the Cosby Era, as I am, the past three years have been like an aching pain in your heart that won't go away. From "America's Dad" to "America's Cad" in an instant, as more and more decades-old revelations spilled out in the media. 

When the scandal first erupted, I wrote the following post. Now that the trial is reality, I wanted to republish it. It originally appeared Nov. 29, 2014, during the second wave of civil disturbances in Ferguson, Mo., brought on by the acquittal of the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.


I waited a while to write this until the media feeding frenzy and "Me, too! Me, too!" piling on blew over.

Boy, did it ever.

Black Friday? Forget that. This has been Black Week in America. And if he hasn't already, Bill Cosby should hit his creaky knees and thank God for the blessings of timing and the 24-hour news cycle. "America's Dad" may be the only man in the country to benefit from the senseless destruction and idiocy of Ferguson, since it literally blasted him off the front pages.

Not for long, though, I'm guessing. When you've got women taking numbers to stand in line so they can hurl rape allegations at you, there's an excellent chance you'll regain the title of Public Celebrity Enemy No. 1 sooner than later. I walked through the grocery store the other day: Cosby is on this week's cover of People, Us...and the National Enquirer. Nobody wants to be that popular.

Suddenly, everybody has a Bill Cosby story. Here are a few of mine.

Out of respect, a photo Cosby approved.
There is absolutely no doubt in my head that my sense of humor, whatever it may be, was completely formed, shaped and polished by William Henry Cosby Jr. – or more specifically, by the string of 10 classic, tear-inducing comedy albums he recorded between 1963 and 1969, a span roughly corresponding to my junior high and high school years.

Here was a young, inventive comedian the same color as I, which, believe me, was not an everyday occurrence in the '60s. And, unlike Redd Foxx (who was the only other African American comic I knew of at the time), you didn't have to wait until your parents were gone to pull his albums out of their hiding place. Cosby always worked "clean," never stooped to vulgarity or innuendo, never took advantage of his comedic birthright to use his race for easy punchlines.

Why Is There Air? Wonderfulness. "I Started Out as a Child." It felt like they were coming out every other month. I would race to the record store in the little town next to the little town where I grew up, snatch up the latest LP on the date of its release, then dash home breathlessly to begin absorbing every groove. By the tenth hearing or so I had every routine committed to memory.

Meanwhile, in the other small town, my friend, Chris DeBlaey, was going through the exact same ritual. We were Cos-obsessed. Chris and I attended the same small (of course) Methodist church, and by Sunday our mental guns were loaded. You know how kids are in church to begin with...and we came armed with material.

We would sit next to each other in the service, alternating lines of Cosby's monologues, trying our utmost to break each other up. I vividly remember one Sunday night worship where our persistent snickers and stifled snorts escalated to such a volume that our pastor, Ron Smeenge, actually halted the service in mid-sermon.

"YOU TWO!" he bellowed, sounding like the voice of God Himself.  "Just what exactly is so funny?"

I wanted to shout out, "Noah!" or "What's a cubit?" using an example I figured he would understand. Instead, Chris and looked down at the floor, feigning remorse, then cut knowing glances at each other, our eyes dancing with mischief.

I learned comedic timing from Bill Cosby's albums. I studied the art of the pause, how to deliver the punch line, how bending a word or simply choosing one word over another could make a joke funnier. And since I ultimately spent a portion of my life working as a professional standup comic, I would say I tried to put those lessons to good use.
The Cosby image the media shows today, now that he is Satan.

But there's more. Maybe you have to be a young boy in his formative years with a media fixation and an identity crisis to understand how thrilling it was to have a black man starring in a dramatic television series. Bill Cosby broke TV's color barrier in 1968 with I Spy: before Sheldon Leonard made the daring decision to cast him as Alexander Scott, blacks were allowed to make America laugh but never permitted to make us think. And it was significant to me that Scott was the smart one, the thinking man's character, and Robert Culp was the athlete. That's a contrast that rarely happens even today.
*          *          *
Fast forward to the mid-80s. I'm the entertainment writer for The Detroit News and the long-gone Premier Center in suburban Sterling Heights is booking an impressive lineup of national acts. Two legends of the industry, Bill Cosby and Sammy Davis Jr., are touring together for the first time. I am, as you might expect, giddy with anticipation. But first, some background.

Several weeks earlier, Eddie Murphy made his first standup appearance in Detroit at the Masonic Temple. I was reviewing the show, sitting in a back row, and was very familiar with Murphy's outrageously blue comedic style. I was in the minority. The audience that night was largely white, people who knew Murphy only from his small body of work on Saturday Night Live. They expected to see live versions of his Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson characters; some even brought their children! I could see disaster on the horizon, and unfortunately I was right. The first time Murphy dropped an F-bomb you literally could hear jaws dropping.

Ultimately Eddie had to cut his performance short and was booed offstage. Someone actually threw a shoe at him as he stalked to the wings. He stopped, picked up the shoe and threw it back at the crowd! Besides writing my local review, I was a stringer for People magazine and wrote a blurb that appeared nationally on the magazine's back page.

Back to the Premier Center. Davis and Cosby put on a sparkling performance, and when it was over a VIP reception was thrown for them backstage. Elizabeth Roach, the venue's publicist and a good friend, asked, "Would you like to go back and meet Mr. Cosby?" I had a deadline to meet, but – are you kidding? Heck yeah, I'll go!

We were milling around backstage, waiting for an opening, and at the appropriate moment Roach walked me up to Cosby and introduced us. He looked at me and narrowed his eyes, apparently putting two and two together. "Are you the one who wrote that piece in People magazine?" he asked.

"Y-y-yes," I stammered.

"Come here."

Cosby took me by the arm, walked me over to a small table near the back of the room and proceeded to give me a 20-minute master class on his theories of comedy and why blue humor is its own worst enemy. Was I mesmerized? What do you think? In the midst of a throng of people who merely wanted to shake his hand, I was sitting face-to-face with my comedy idol who was giving me an animated lecture on Comedy 101. He was warm and passionate, the Ph.D. side of his nature clearly gushing forth. I was euphoric, living a highlight-reel life moment, one which I shall never forget.
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As we'd prefer to remember him: Cosby Show papa Cliff Huxtable.
The last time I talked to Cosby was about three years ago, for an advance feature in HOUR Detroit magazine prior to one of his Detroit appearances. Again, he gave more than expected: a scheduled 15-minute interview turned into a 45-minute conversation, and this time he was dropping the F-bombs, trying to give me an object lesson about how blue humor was the lazy way to a cheap laugh. Mostly, though we talked about the African American community in general and Detroit in particular. 

For my money, most of his recurring themes about society today make complete sense. Young black men should pull up their pants and stop acting like inmates-in-waiting. Education is the key to escaping the downward spiral of poverty and drugs. All politicians, white and especially black, need to do more to bolster the African American community. But because of his age (77) and occupation (funny man), Cosby has been summarily dismissed by Black America as a grouchy curmudgeon talking down at us from his mountain of money. We didn't want to hear the message, so we objected to the messenger.

Now, I've said all that to say this: these last few weeks have ripped holes in my heart. Cosby has been my hero, role model and comedy icon for decades, as he has been for millions of others. (C'mon, don't be ashamed to admit it now.) I haven't even mentioned how he almost singlehandedly saved NBC in the 1980s with his most successful Cosby Show (he had several in his career), or what Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids meant to children of my generation and beyond. 

Hearing this litany of assertions is like finding out that Captain America was a Communist spy, or Judge Judy abuses her grandkids. Did he do all these horrible things he's being accused of? I don't know for certain, and neither do you. If it was only Janice Dickinson making the charges, we might not be so quick to rush to judgment; she hasn't had a purely lucid thought since the '90s. But a steady stream of women, at 16 and counting I believe, have come forward with essentially the same story.

I think a big part of it is that deep down, we want Cosby to be Cliff Huxtable, the dad we all wished we had, which is kind of like expecting Jim Parsons to be Sheldon Cooper. (Some days, I'll bet Jim Parsons wishes he was Sheldon Cooper). This just in, people: television is not reality. The truth is, nobody is all good or all bad; the backlash is so ferocious because our naivete has been shattered.

I went back and watched the video of the Hannibal Burress standup routine that rekindled all this. It was direct. It was cutting. But what struck me was that it wasn't funny, which made me question his motives for doing the bit in the first place. Did he just want to denigrate a living legend in order to elevate himself? I think it's fair to say "black man" and "rape" in the same sentence almost never brings an audience to tears. (Of laughter, anyway.) It just seemed like an odd forum for so vicious a contention.

Let me say without hesitation that rape is a horrific, odious, unforgivable offense. If America was just, there would be no statute of limitations for the crime, as is the case with murder, especially because women sometimes require many years to gather the courage to come forward and name their attacker. But there is a statute, and for these accusers it has long since expired. Why, oh why did it take so many years for all of his victims to step out of the shadows? Was Cosby's control and intimidation over them that complete? Did he and the lords of Hollywood do that good a job of keeping his sins away from the public eye, keeping them swept under the rug?

So instead the nation has turned on him like a pack of wolves. It's too late to prosecute, so they persecute. The media is opting to use the most grizzled, stubbly, unflattering photos it can find. New projects and concerts have been abruptly cancelled, Cosby Show reruns have been yanked. Meanwhile, I still can watch Two and a Half Men in syndication every night, and Charlie Sheen's myriad transgressions are a matter of public record. Heck, he boasts about many of them. Seventh Heaven is back on the air although series star Stephen Collins has admitted to molesting children. What are we to make of that?

In Cosby's case, he has been tried, convicted and sentenced in the Court of Public Opinion even though no charges have been filed against him. Now he has resigned as a trustee from his beloved Temple University, a board position he has held more than 30 years, not wishing to be a distraction to his alma mater.

Did he do it? I don't know. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and at one point Cosby was among the most powerful men in Hollywood.

Bill Cosby has had a remarkable, multifacted career, one almost anyone would be proud to claim. Now he's a septuagenarian and rich as Midas. Does he care that his reputation and legacy have been tarnished for all time? Only he knows. I know that his only son, Ennis, was brutally murdered on an LA freeway some years ago. so it's not as though he's blithely floated through his success without having some holes ripped in his heart, too.

I just wish my hero would come forward and deny it all in the most powerful terms possible. Say something. Anything. Right now the silence hurts more than any F-bomb used for a cheap laugh. It's deafening. Nobody's laughing.

Monday, February 13, 2017

'Detroiters:' A Silly, Drive-By Celebration of the Comeback City

Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson play airhead ad men in 'Detroiters.'
Though I wasn't born there, I spent nearly half my life, more than 30 years, in Detroit. I lived most of that time inside the city proper (always on the East Side) but also claimed addresses in Pontiac, Southfield, Warren and Ferndale.

And in the minds of many locals, that combination of facts – (1) wasn't born there, (2) didn't live there continuously, and (3) don't live there now – are more than enough to disqualify me as an "official" Detroiter.

In the Motor Town, pride and provincialism run as thick as Sanders' hot fudge over Stroh's ice cream. If you're gonna "do Detroit," you better come correct. So you can imagine the southeast Michigan trepidation and jubilation upon the arrival of Detroiters, the new half-hour sitcom Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. EST on Comedy Central.

It's not unlike having your kid perform the solo in the school recital: we're so excited for the opportunity, but please don't screw up and embarrass us.

And for the most part Detroiters does Detroit proud, although it definitely could have made a better first impression comedically. It goes beyond the standard national video clich├ęs of the city – blighted buildings, the Spirit of Detroit statue, ruin porn, Joe Louis' fist – to layer in some references sure to make locals smile.

When the two principal players, a pair of hapless advertising guys struggling to keep their tiny agency afloat, need a snack break after an all-night brainstorming session, they grab for a bag of Better Made potato chips. When they want to check out their new commercial as it airs, they slip into the Temple Bar and – ohmigosh! – isn't that legendary former Detroit anchor Mort Crim on the TV, intoning the local news?

This attention to Detroit detail should come as no surprise, since the show's thirtysomething stars and creators, Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson (Veep), are Motor Citizens to their core, fulfilling a long-held dream to mount a comedy shot in and about their homeland.

Robinson grew up around Clarkston, while Richardson spent his childhood in the city's famed Boston-Edison neighborhood. They met as members of the now-defunct Detroit edition of the Second City comedy troupe and formed a tight friendship – so much so that they texted each other almost daily even though they continued their careers on opposite coasts. Robinson resettled in New York and parlayed that Second City connection into a cast position, and eventually a staff writing gig, on Saturday Night Live.

He must have left on excellent terms: Detroiters is executive produced by legendary SNL founder Lorne Michaels and former ensemble member Jason Sudeikis, who appeared in the pilot episode as the Big Kahuna vice president of marketing for Chrysler. His character becomes the impossible dream for Tim Cramblin (Robinson), owner of a small-time family ad agency with his partner (and brother-in-law) Sam Duvet (Richardson): though they don't have a swimmer's chance in the Detroit River of landing a major national auto account, that doesn't deter them from going to extraordinary measures to make their pitch.

In part, Detroiters is a celebration of those classic, incredibly hokey local-TV commercials that every market cherishes – in Detroit's case, featuring outrageous pitchmen like Ollie Fretter, Richard Golden, Mel Farr "Superstar" and, of course, the immortal Maurice Lezell, "Mr. Belvedere." In part, it is silly and disjointed, and at some point during the pilot you'll find yourself wishing it was funnier. The New York Times described the show as "Dumb and Dumber meets Mad Men," which is fairly accurate, but not quite as goofy as the former and nowhere near as sophisticated as the latter.

What makes Detroiters special is that of all the series set in or based on Detroit – from Home Improvement and Martin to Detroit 1-8-7, Low Winter Sun and Hung – it undeniably comes closest to getting Detroit right. YES, black men and white men can get along, be besties and even be related to each other! YES, we have fine downtown dining establishments that don't serve coney dogs! NO, not every residential area in the city looks like a bombed-out, postwar London!

You can't throw a bottle of Vernors anywhere in the country without hitting a Detroiter upside the head. We're everywhere! However, whether enough of them care about reveling in their hometown's mystique – and convincing hundreds of thousands of their non-Detroit friends to do the same – will be this sitcom's ultimate key to success. Wish I could help lead the charge, but as you know, I'm not an "official" Detroiter.

On the Big Glowing Box Remote (out of 10): 7.0 clicks (anticipating rapid improvement)