Payneful picture 

Tyler Perry, welcome to television. If this medium routinely eats its young, what kind of career devastation could it inflict on Hollywood's latest self-made success story?

Let me tell you, Madea, it ain't pretty.

Tyler Perry's House of Payne, Perry's first foray into the half-hour sitcom format, premieres at 9 p.m. tonight (Wednesday, June 6) on cable's TBS with back-to-back episodes. His legions of fans will tune in, stare with stunned disbelief and wonder, "Who really created this mess and what have they done with Tyler Perry?" This House is not a home. It literally is Payne-ful to watch.

You'd think the dude would know better. After years of touring the nation's chitlin circuit in sold-out theatrical productions he wrote, produced and starred in himself —usually dressed in drag as the wisecracking, all-knowing matriarch Madea — Perry's 2005 feature film debut Diary of a Mad Black Woman shocked the entertainment universe by opening No. 1 at the box office. He's gone on to make two more major movies, head back on the road with a new stage show, Madea Goes to Jail, and pen a first book, Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, that remained at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for three months. Perry has carefully cultivated a loyal multitude of mostly black, predominantly female followers, and he clearly knows precisely what his audience wants.

So what happened here? Apparently the key phrase is "his audience." Perry is the epitome of the one-man show, but TV is all about groupthink, layers of creative input, dumbing-down concepts to their lowest common viewership. Presumably because he's a prime-time rookie, Perry is sharing his executive producer duties with TV comedy graybeard Reuben Cannon, and his ideas with a backstage horde of hundreds. Then again, even though Perry isn't writing these episodes, he is directing them. What the hell is he looking at?

House of Payne is just ... not ... funny. At all. Even the laugh track sounds like it realizes the gig is up. I squirmed through four episodes and couldn't locate a belly laugh in the bunch. (In fairness, I did emit three chuckles and one knowing grunt.)

In trying to create a latter-day successor to such classic household comedies as The Jeffersons and All in the Family, the show manages to copy only the most mean-spirited, degrading and stereotypic qualities of each.

Ironically, there really is a man named Payne in this cast. (TBS says it's a coincidence, and I'll bet the actor isn't claiming any credit.) It's Allen Payne (Jason's Lyric), who stars as CJ Payne, a young Atlanta firefighter, husband and father who's forced to move his family in with his anger-challenged fire chief uncle (LaVan Davis) and devout, softhearted aunt (Cassi Davis) after his wife, Janine (Demetria McKinney), accidentally burns down their house. (You chuckling yet?)

Like Archie Bunker, the uncle, Calvin, rails against this multigenerational invasion of his home and castle; his ne'er-do-well college student son (Lance Gross) also prefers to spend more time eating mom's cooking than living in his dorm.

Calvin chooses to express his displeasure in, shall we say, politically incorrect ways. In one scene, when the son arrives carrying an armload of knockoff purses he's planning to sell, Calvin exclaims to his wife, "Ella, I told you not to eat all that sugar when you were breast feeding! He's a sweetie!" It may have worked for Archie, but this stuff is waaay dated now. Fifteen minutes into flaccid dialogue, pitiable casting (mostly TV unknowns from Perry's theatrical days), bratty kids and painful chemistry, even the guest appearance of Perry himself in a dress and wig, a caricature of his Madea character, can't salvage his TV coming-out party.

Next week, Janine is discovered to be a crack addict in a "special" arc of shows dealing with drug addiction. Yeah, that's where I always look for my laughs. These kind of message stories usually are reserved for the third season, not the third episode. Maybe they sense that House of Payne's life span will be severely compressed.

Fall of the TV empire

With nearly 100 new summer series coming the next few months — everything from pirates to bingo to ex-wives, oh, my — the major networks unveiled their 2007 fall lineups recently with virtually no fanfare. That's probably for the better, but there were a few items worthy of note.

In the land of Must-Not-See-TV, NBC, which last week fired entertainment chief Kevin Reilly for humiliating fourth-place ratings (and months after giving him a new three-year contract), relented to pressure from its top-dog producer Dick Wolf and will bring back all three versions of Law & Order next fall, including the flagship original for a historic 18th season. However, not all three will be on the network: L&O: Criminal Intent is being shifted to NBC Universal-owned USA Networks for its first-run episodes (also historic), with reruns eventually landing on NBC.

I've never received more reader response here than when I hailed Criminal Intent's Vincent D'Onofrio as one of prime-time's most fascinating actors. Wonder how this move will play with that zealous bunch?

And ABC, which doesn't need to scrape beneath the barrel, announced a Tuesday night sitcom starring those cavemen from the Geico insurance commercials. What, the gecko wanted too much money?

Jim McFarlin is media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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