Chances are, if you’ve watched an episode of SNL over the past 50 years (well, since 2003, but still!) you’ve seen and noticed Kenan Thompson. I’ve always appreciated his ability to snag laughs with minimal lines and his skill at setting up other actors on SNL. He shines as a show host (Reese De’What, Steve Harvey) and he fills supporting roles with a great deal of personality while playing off the focus of the sketch. For example, he plays the disgusted bartender in a recurring sketch where two gross people meet and make out in a bar. His role is limited to reaction lines, but he makes the most of them. While Kenan has done work beyond SNL, his parts have tended to be pure comedy (Nickelodeon’s Kenan & Kel, the title role of FAT ALBERT) or supporting (a small role in SNAKES ON A PLANE). NBC’s KENAN is the first time I’ve seen Kenan Thompson in a lead role with more depth.
In the new show, Thompson plays a widowed dad named … Kenan, who is juggling his job as the host of a morning talk show (which also has “Kenan” in the title) with raising his two girls. His father in law (Don Johnson) has moved in with him to help out and his brother (fellow SNL star Chris Redd) is trying to convince him to move on as well.
As can be expected with that set up, Kenan tries to be a comedy with some heart. While it makes an admirable attempt, it is clear the show is still finding its legs in finding the right tone. The family side of the equation nails it. Don Johnson is the character that seems most natural, and his delivery of his punchlines feels organic. He is given the strongest material and he makes the most of it. If you’ve seen Redd in his other work like SNL or the criminally underrated POPSTAR: NEVER STOP STOPPING, you know what you are going to get (which is ok, because it’s funny). Where the show falters a bit is on the work side of the show’s supporting characters, who tend to be a bit over the top for a comedy about a guy struggling with his wife’s death. Thus far, they seem more appropriate for a traditional goofy office sitcom along the lines of JUST SHOOT ME, or NEWSRADIO. Even THE OFFICE is too realistic for this crew.
Kenan the show’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness – Kenan Thompson. Kenan excels at comedy and the pilot is genuinely funny at times. Kenan is less experienced at drama, and some of the ‘feelings’ moments tend to fall a bit flat. This is certainly an area that can improve with practice, and you can sense Thompson’s desire to stretch himself as a performer in the pilot. Thompson tries his best to make the character relatable, which is impressive given the broad comedy technique he usually relies on. His efforts are partially undermined by the show’s set up, which is kind of a mish-mash of a silly office comedy and a family comedy that tackles serious issues like BLACK-ISH or SINGLE PARENTS. While it is easy to relate to a single dad who lost his wife, it is harder to relate to that dad when he’s a former actor and current talk show host in a major media market. It will be interesting to see which tone the show settles on (earnest dramedy or playing it more for straight laughs) and how it handles the two halves of Kenan’s life (home and work) moving forward.
While KENAN seems to be a work in progress, this is not unusual for a comedy pilot. Given Kenan Thompson’s excellent track record in comedy, I’m willing to give the show an opportunity to hit its stride. As it stands now, Thompson, Johnson, and Redd provide enough laughs to make it worth a look.
KENAN airs on Tuesdays on NBC at 8:30pm Eastern/Pacific, the series premiere is tomorrow February 16th.
Are you going to watch the show? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter!