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NBC's Young Rock and Kenan Sitcoms are Energetic, Familiar

Among the many storylines of “Into The Crevasse,” a fourth-season episode of“30 Rock,” is one in which Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy is desperate to keep his job. With a forced resignation looming, the Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for NBC/GE/The Sheinhardt Wig Corporation asks the TGS writing staff to help him come up with a genius idea that will forever change the microwave oven landscape. They brainstorm wildly, their ideas becoming increasingly impractical or unnecessary as their excitement grows. They add doors, they put wheels on it, and suddenly Jack realizes: They’ve just “invented” the automobile. Just because something feels new to your brain doesn’t mean it actually is. Sometimes inspiration strikes and the results are, well, inspired. But this is an important lesson for any microwave technology executive and/or sitcom creator to learn: sometimes endless attempts to improve something, to make it new and exciting, land you with the same old kitchen appliance, now roughly resembling a Honda Fit.

NBC’s two latest sitcoms (both premiering on February 16) have that Honda Fit energy, but on the inside, they’re just microwaves. There’s Nahnatchka Khan’s “Young Rock,” a Dwayne Johnson-led Dwayne Johnson autobiographitcom that jumps willy-nilly between the actor’s childhood, teen years, college life, and his 2032 presidential campaign (yes, really). Then there’s Kenan Thompson and Jackie Clarke’s long-awaited “Kenan,” a single-cam sitcom with multi-cam energy which follows a widowed dad (Thompson) as he raises his two daughters while also anchoring Atlanta’s second-most popular morning show. Each has its charms, thanks in no small part to the seemingly bottomless vats of charisma of the series’ respective leading men, but they’ve got more than star power in common. They’re both promising but uneven, energetic but frustratingly familiar. And each could learn a little something from the other, as one bites off far more than it can chew, and the other seems contended to nibble.

"Young Rock"

Let’s start with the former. It’s handy to have pivoted to a food metaphor, because Johnson and Khan would like to grant you the chance to smell what “Young Rock” is cooking. The ups and downs in the life of young Dwayne (played, “Moonlight”-style, by Adrian Groulx, Bradley Constant, and Uli Latukefu as a kid, teen, and college student respectively) are, in a certain light, not all that different from what many kids experience. He’s got parents who love him (Joseph Lee Anderson and promising newcomer Stacey Leilua) and a robust, raucous extended family, a crush and a best friend, money troubles, and a feverish desire to fit in. But his father and grandparents are royalty in the world of professional wrestling, so his wacky uncles are people like Andre the Giant (Matthew Willig) and The Iron Sheik (Brett Azar), and his troubles fitting in stem mostly from his dad’s mouth writing checks Dwayne can’t cash and the fact that his physical appearance is such that everyone at his high school—the principal included—thinks he’s pulling a “21 Jump Street.” These formative experiences are recounted for the audience, and I cannot stress this enough, in the context of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s 2032 presidential campaign, offered in the form of a sit-down interview with “actor-turned journalist” Randall Park (of Khan’s “Fresh Off The Boat”), at campaign events, or during big speeches—for example, when he’s announcing his pick for vice president. 

Needless to say, it’s a lot for one half-hour comedy to handle. The desire to do all things at once—the speculative future presidential campaign thing, the perils of high school, the time spent as a kid with legendary pro wrestlers, the heartfelt family story, the college football stuff—all but ensures that few aspects of the story get the time necessary to really engage viewers. And the surreal, unnecessary, but admittedly entertaining framing device feels more like a set-up for a “Saturday Night Live” digital short than anything else. (It should be noted that this element of the premise bears no small resemblance to that of Ilana Peña’s lovely Disney+ series “Diary Of A Future President,” which makes up for its lack of The Rock with great writing and 10 times the focus.) 

Yet when “Young Rock” stops long enough to focus on any one story, it’s handled pretty well. Who doesn’t want to watch a sitcom in which a young Dwayne Johnson goes to see “E.T.” with Andre the Giant, or buys a crappy car for 103 bucks only to discover there’s a surprisingly wise dude named Waffle asleep in the backseat? A few such moments of promise can be found in the three episodes provided for critics; if the series can find a less frenetic rhythm, then such moments, bolstered by the considerable charms of its star, may be enough to hold “Young Rock” together.

"Kenan"

At any rate, it’s better to have the problem of doing too much than too little. That’s the trouble with “Kenan,” the oft-delayed, long-awaited vehicle for the longest-tenured member of the “SNL” cast. Co-created by Thompson and Clarke (“Superstore”), “Kenan” is a far more straightforward property than “Young Rock,” if only because the protagonist isn’t running for president 11 years in the future. He’s got enough on his plate, trying to balance his job in local broadcasting with the raising of his charming daughters Aubrey (Danie Lane) and Birdie (Dannah Lane) all done with the help—sometimes welcome, sometimes not—of the two other men living with the family. Lest you think this is some sort of “Full House” reboot, I should specify that the helpers in question are Kenan’s brother/manager (“SNL” co-star Chris Redd) and his late wife’s father Rick (Don Johnson), and that neither of them ever says “Have mercy.” 

“Full House” doesn’t have a monopoly on sitcom grief. Neither does “The Unicorn,” CBS’ Walton Goggins-starring series, another sitcom about a dad raising his kids after the death of his wife with the help/interference of well-meaning friends. There’s nothing wrong with treading a little well-worn territory. Clarke and Thompson’s efforts to differentiate their show from others may not be as wild as those of the “Young Rock” writers, but there’s still a sense that they’re putting doors on a microwave; there are elements of workplace comedy and odd touches of the surreal, such as a blooper reel from the sitcom where Kenan met his wife Cori (Niccole Thurman). Those elements don’t quite gel, but to be fair, little about the show does. 

Even the most promising aspects of the proceedings, namely the star’s warm presence and the endearing rapport of this sitcom family, fall flat. It’s as though “Kenan” spends so much of its energy trying to please that it forgets to tell a story. It’s a comedy about a grieving family attempting to move on, yet in the pilot—the only episode provided for critics—there’s precious little emotional specificity and even fewer punchlines. Some of the challenges of the pilot can be laid at the feet of the episode’s director and editors. Thompson’s performance doesn’t benefit from the bewilderingly frequent cuts to different camera positions, nor the apparent devotion to the medium shot. When he, Redd, and Johnson are allowed to simply act, it’s possible to glimpse the show “Kenan” could become, if only the folks behind the camera would all settle down.

It’s a strange time to be making a new television show, to say nothing of a snappy 21-minute pilot; “Kenan” deserves the chance to develop some sea legs, and Thompson has more than earned a little patience from viewers. Let’s hope that both “Kenan” and “Young Rock” can stop trying to be a dozen things at once, and if they can’t, then cross your fingers that at least one of those things will be simply good.

Three episodes of "Young Rock" screened; one episode of "Kenan" screened for review.

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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