I hate that I don’t like White Famous more. I like raunchy humour, I adore Jamie Foxx (on whose career the show is loosely based), and I love shows about Black people glowing up. Showtime’s latest project, then, should be an instant winner of my heart in the television department — but it’s not. One of the reasons for my disappointment is that the show has a stale take on Black masculinity that doesn’t make the same commitment to progressiveness that every other aspect of the show has. White Famous successfully makes a spectacle of the people running Hollywood behind the scenes — episode three goes to particular lengths to portray executives as sex-crazed — but in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, even that feels weird.
Sunday night’s episode saw central character Floyd Mooney (Jay Pharoah) still side-eyeing the inappropriately sexual situations he finds himself in as he tries to advance his burgeoning acting career. Producer Teddy (Michael Rapaport) still oozes homoeroticism in his creative vision for Floyd’s character. And Floyd slept with a powerful talent agent, Amy (Natalie Zea), only to find out that she’s married to the network head, Peter (Jack Davenport), who can’t wait wait to work with him. These are uncomfortable situations for sure, but then there are the other minor interactions between characters that reveal something else.
“Thank you for wearing the shoes I requested,” is what Peter tells his assistant as she’s leaving the room. In case you didn’t know, being a high-level assistant is a demanding, thankless job, but it does not often require special footwear. What was clearly being alluded to was the level of control Peter has over his assistant and her body. In another example of male entitlement, Floyd’s agent Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar) has a crush on Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman), who is Floyd’s kid’s mother. She’s uninterested, and Floyd finds it disrespectful, but Malcolm insists on making advances at her anyway. It’s not as cute and funny as the showrunners think it is.
Every episode of White Famous that I’ve seen so far has been loaded with moments like these. They are meant to be cheeky takes on the hedonistic desires of powerful people who are used to getting what they want on demand. Even Floyd’s apprehension to speak on some of these observations as an up-and-coming Black actor is a reminder of how people of colour are forced to maneuvre within the industry. This is the Hollywood that created a way for Weinstein to prey on young women trying to get their start in the industry for decades. This environment, where those who call the shots get a pass on how they treat those around them, helped protect and elevate a predator. Sure, the absurdity all makes for good television and an array of interesting characters — this is why White Famous’ predecessor Californication — was such a success. But when we know that the experiences of the women who have to deal with these people are less than funny, it changes the tone and context.
I don’t think that the White Famous powers that be could have predicted the storm that was brewing with Weinstein and how it would make the show feel like it was making light of a serious issue too soon after it unfolded. Ironically, the real problem is that White Famous came too late. A few years ago, before #OscarsSoWhite and an evolved conversation about the way women are treated in Hollywood — from pay parity to sexual assault — became a priority, White Famous could have worked. It probably took executive producer Foxx years to get the show picked up and greenlit, but the finished product is too late, and as a result, the jokes are falling pretty flat.