If Lil Rel Howery’s last series “The Carmichael Show” was about a family trying to break free from the usual sitcom mold, “Rel” finds a group of people being thrust into one. Once the on-screen goofy foil for a brother who mostly had his life together, now Howery is starring in a show of his own as the character all the other people in his orbit are bouncing off. “Rel” has the germ of something subversive at its core, but the opening episode finds the show attacking a basic comedic premise with workmanlike passability.
Howery plays Rel, a down-on-his-luck divorcee, trying to rebuild his life after his wife leaves him, taking their children with her. “Rel” wastes no time dunking its title character into the requisite sitcom rebound cycle, using this pilot episode to get him back into the dating pool. And wouldn’t you know it, the first woman that’s a romantic possibility has a tiny character quirk that bugs Rel. (This leads to another indicative moment from the pilot: When Rel and another person have a conversation about a person from their past named “Roach Girl,” the script has them tell the story behind it, rather than leave it as an unexplained joke.)
His wife’s affair becomes so pervasive in his life that Rel doesn’t have any respite from people confronting him with it. Even a solitary moment on a bus is broken up by a bunch of guys who turn the inside of a moving vehicle into an impromptu Rel roast. D.C. Young Fly, as Jaymo, the leader of this insult-to-injury group, is a lightning bolt of energy. As this cycle of self-pity threatens to grow stale, his timing and delivery is a welcome shakeup.
Here’s hoping the show finds ways to work him into plenty of future episodes, because the rest of the show’s supporting cast is already settling into a familiar, easily repeatable dynamic. Brittany (Jessica ‘Jess Hilarious’ Moore) is doing what she can to shake Rel from skulking, and Nat (Jordan L. Jones) seems content to fulfill the little brother duties of being occasionally helpful and a frequent thorn in Rel’s side.
Sinbad, in his TV return as Rel’s father, seems a little disjointed from the rest of the show, and not just in the punchline-adjacent ways that this dad distances himself from his children. With so much of this first episode establishing how Rel is meant to recover from his new situation, there’s plenty of room left to figure out how the rest of his inner circle can transcend just being joke delivery devices.
The one streak inside Rel that offers hope for a more interesting show to come is a certain level of self-awareness. Even as Rel eventually decides that revenge for his wife’s affair is the thing that might shake him from his complacency, that confrontation results in a nice bit of table-turning that adds an added dimension to Rel’s forthcoming journey.
And even though Howery is saddled with having to be the standard sitcom protagonist around which the rest of the show revolves, it still offers him a chance to indulge in the crowd-pleasing charms that made him a “Get Out” breakout. One surreal church sequence gives Rel a chance to see himself in someone else, whether he realizes it or not. The more that “Rel” flirts with these stylistic breaks from expectations, the more it’ll be able to capitalize on the performer that gives the show its name.
If “Rel” never moves beyond this baseline, Howery doing the standard expected sitcom rhythms still carries with it some enjoyable rewards. (Hearing him blaze through the phrase “pastrami-less” is a particular highlight of the pilot.) “Rel” may not have to grow to be a hit, but at least there’s a hint of where it could go if it truly wants to set itself apart.
“Rel” premieres September 9 on Fox before moving to Sunday nights at 9:30 p.m.
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