In Living Color - Season 1 Review
In Living Color was the brainchild of Keenen Ivory Wayans, the eldest sibling of a large and extremely talented family whose guidance toward his brothers and sisters would help shape his creation into something truly memorable, the likes of which had never been seen prior on US television.
In 1989, Keenen set about making a pilot episode for something he knew was going to be different. It wasn't just going to be a show performed by black people for black people but was to be a multi-ethnic series. Using this as his basis he recruited two white actors who were fairly unknown at the time - James Carrey (now known as Jim) and Kelly Coffield.
In addition, the show introduced more upcoming talent, in the form of Tommy Davidson, Kim Coles, David Alan Grier, T'keyah "Crystal" Keymah and finally his siblings Kim and Damon Wayans. The cast was formed and the pilot was filmed. Things went quiet for a while until word of mouth spread about this amazing new show that dared to be different and one year later FOX television picked it up. In Spring 1990 In Living Color premiered on prime-time television and became a smash sensation overnight.
It's easy to consider In Living Color as being a groundbreaking show, so truthful in that its approach to many issues attributed to its huge success in America, thanks in part to the cast's delivery.
Keenen Ivory Wayans has always been passionate about dealing with current world issues, states of affairs and how every man or woman is treated in the world today, no matter the colour of their skin. It wasn't until it first aired that people got a taste of what Keenen and his crew were trying to achieve. By being let loose to run wild and bring their separate talents to the screen, improvising and bringing fresh, new lovable characters along the way they would help to get the message across to a wide audience in a no-holds barred satire that defied the set conventions of most TV shows being produced. Saturday Night Live was their only main contender but the advantage of In Living Color being videotaped meant that they had more freedom to get away with whatever they liked, Keenen would later deal with the censors and the show would air without much outside intervention. They simply didn't care about what the critics or public would think. If the show was deemed offensive then it was simply misunderstood, such has been the case for many a satirical show finding itself under fire.
However, In Living Color was embraced whole heartedly and after the first season's run (13 episodes) it had become a phenomenon. Characters such as Damon's Homey the Clown, Carrey's Vera De Milo and again Damon's Anton to name but a few stayed in the public's mind. Season 2 would follow in the fall of that same year, such was popular demand.
From episode one it was clear to see that this cast had an amazing chemistry and it stuck all the way. Audiences fell in love with James Carrey and Damon Wayans (who, in my opinion is a comic genius but is sadly underused these days), both of whom would later go on to achieve massive success in their careers ahead. The show paved the way for new talent and those who love Carrey, the Wayans brothers and co today may have missed out on their earlier work. The series was aired in the UK courtesy of Sky One back in the early 90's but few actually remember the show following its relegation to post midnight slots.
I was a regular viewer and have fond memories from the series with quotes and characters etched into my mind so when FOX announced this DVD would be released in Spring 2004 my face lit up. I was just 13 years old when I first saw In Living Color and it is with great glee that I write this review for a landmark series that has stood the test of time well and now via DVD a new audience can be introduced to its delights.
So, on to the actual episodes - In Living Color is a 22 minute sketch based show, featuring topics that are always being dealt with in one way or another on various television shows. The stereotypical black, white, gay, homeless, handsome, ugly man/woman etc are dealt with in an "in your face" manner, bringing home a clear message to viewers that ignorance is what often causes controversy. After all, if these weren't a strong issue in the first place then why would this show gain so much talk? "Controversial" it isn't or rather shouldn't be in my opinion. Truthful, passionate and hilarious at the same time it most certainly is.
The series went further still with the introduction of "The Fly Girls" and behind the scenes dance choreographer and actress, Rosie Perez. Like Saturday Night Live, Keenen Ivory Wayans wanted a regular act to break up the skits and provide an entertaining breather for those trying to settle down after each rib tickling sketch.
The girls, who also went on to greater things - Cari French, Carrie Ann Inaba (who would later appear in the Austin Powers sequels), Deidre Lang, Lisa Todd and Michelle Whitney-Morrison were some of the most beautiful young women to grace the TV screen. Mesmerising dance numbers that were expertly choreographed would also fuel the fantasy in every male, with each dance number having the girls dressed in different attire, perhaps a little dated by today's standards but no less effective when worn by these wonderful performers. “The Fly Girls” girls were physically stunning and their talents were amazing with some great moments to be seen as the girls dance in perfect timing to each other. These small dance numbers would only last around 30 seconds but it was fresh and perfectly balanced out the show. It was also Rosie's idea to introduce the Hip-Hop element that would form the basis of the girl's dance routines. This proved to be a successful move and before we knew it, Hip-Hop was growing even bigger; the show did favours for much of the future industry and we can now look back at this and see why.
When watching the series today it is safe to say it holds up very well. My only concerns with the show is that many non-American viewers won't get some of the jokes or many celebrities being lampooned, with the likes of Ted Turner and Bob Saget being ridiculed - this depends on your knowledge of American television but shouldn't prove to be a major issue.
The show wasn't just about certain topics but like any other sketch show simply wanted to give a good time to the audiences and not patronise them. So we were introduced to many memorable characters and sketches. It wasn't all flawless though, there were some sketches that fell flat, went on too long or just weren’t that funny in premise. But these were thankfully only a few and for the most part the series wholly entertains.
I shall now break down the entire 13 episode first season on DVD, from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
In Living Color comes on 3 discs, individually packed in slim ‘thinkpak’ cases. Unlike standard armaray cases these are twice as thin across the spine which makes for nice storage as they take up little space. Each cover features photos from selected episodes and are very colourful.
Episode 1: Love Connection sees Keenen as Mike Tyson, unlucky in love. Great Moments in Black History: First Black Man on the Moon is a poorly executed, mostly unfunny sketch that appears to have been done for the hell of it and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Homeboy Shopping Network has Damon and Keenen as two hoodlums trying to sell stolen goods on TV while in Redd Foxx for Hire Damon plays a character trying to escape the clutches of his nagging wife.
In Equity Express David Alan Grier details the events following his attempt to use his platinum card in a store where the clerks became very suspicious of a black man with such a card. This is a daring and very funny sketch that became the first to tackle racial issues with success.
Men on Film features Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier in the first of many sketches with everyone’s favourite gay couple, Blayne Edwards and Antoine Merriwether, in what would become one of the shows most popular features.
Episode 2: Keenen and Damon offer hilarious impressions of the controversial act, Milli Vanilli, who were known for not singing their own songs and can be see here introducing their latest home product Do-it-Yourself Milli Vanilli Kit. In Arsenio and Marion Barry Keenen plays Arsenio Hall in his own talk show. This is a top impression and just one of many from Keenen that is so memorable due to its exactness.
Rap Choir is a short piece in which David Alan Grier conducts a rapping choir, with not so pleasant results while Sugar Ray Leonard Transition sees Tommy Davidson doing a marvellous take on the famous boxer.
The Wrath of Farrakhan is an excellent "Star Trek" spoof, with James Carrey as Kirk and David Alan Grier as Spock. The crew must deal with The Minister Louis Farrakhan (Damon Wayans) - a former calypso singer who later became leader of a 20th-Century African-American religious sect known as the Nation of Islam.
Ridin' Miss Daisy is a nice little sketch with Damon as the driver and Kelly Coffield as Daisy - in a rather unlikely scenario.
Episode 3: Lean on Me, Beautiful is another hilarious sketch, this time with Keenen as principal Joe Clark, who mistakenly goes to a hair salon and tries to keep order. In Mitzvah Train Damon and Kelly are advertising the latest dating agency, while Go On Girl sees "Crystal" introduce the show for, by and about women and is funny stuff with Kim Wayans and Kim Coles.
Damon Wayans gets brilliantly carried away in United Negro Scholarship Fund as a prisoner with an underdeveloped mind who has no idea what he's talking about. Too-Too Ethnic is short sketch with the two Kim's talking jive, while Lassie gets updated for the 90's in Lassie '90 that sees her as a pit-bull with a penchant for chewing off arms. Jim Carrey plays her owner.
In Richard Pryor - Scared for No Reason Damon stars once again, this time as Richard Pryor in his latest film and offers an excellent performance that is very funny, especially if you've seen Pryor’s work. Last but not least is Super Absorbent - never jump into a swimming pool using these, ladies.
Episode 4: A real highlight of this episode is Oprah in which Kim Wayans gives a great performance as Oprah Winfrey and shows her true talents for comedy. Meanwhile Jim Carrey shows off his physical prowess in The Exxon Family, a sketch about a clumsy workman.
Great Moments in Black History: Self-Service Gas Station is a much better effort than the previous "Great Moments" sketch, while Carrey once again gets to show off his grotesque talents in James Carrey Transition.
Damon Wayans introduces his hobo character, Anton in one of the series' more gross out sketches with a masterful portrayal that is very funny. Blayne Edwards and Antoine Merriwether return in Men on Art and this time they're reviewing famous paintings - uh oh.
Episode 5: In an entertaining sketch featuring three great impressions, Three Champs and a Baby features Mike Tyson (Keenen), Sugar Ray (Tommy) and Ali (David) left to look after a baby which they find on their doorstep. Elsewhere Kelly visits the New Republic of Naganawanaland in New Ambassador with a not so honest translator.
A real highlight here is A Date with Grace in which Kim Wayans give one of her best performances from the entire season. Her portrayal of Grace Jones is magnificent and truly hilarious.
Accommodation for large folk can be found in Hefty World Condominium Estates while the boys are back, this time at the car lot in Homeboy Shopping Network: Used Car Sale or you can enjoy a very sweet little sketch by the name of Black World in which T'keyah "Crystal" Keymah plays a young girl with dreams of a perfect world.
Episode 6: Kicking off (literally) with Bad Karate Class Carrey instructs Karate to women - the results aint pretty but they sure are amusing. Hair products for men…and more can be found in Greshan Formula while Carrey returns for the Kid’s Telethon as Jheri Lewis, a nicely played sketch where he pities the poor soul glow children of America in Jheri's Kids.
The Making of a Tracey Chapman Song features Kim Wayans once again in an episode stealing sketch. You can also sample Oppression for black men or check out Snackin' Shack, though you wouldn't want to eat here as Kim is the old waitress in a diner that's not too caring about hygiene.
Episode 7: A brilliant opening comes in the form of Don King: The Early Years where Damon Wayans, going from strength to strength, is this time playing the young Don King as he started his career early in school.
Cookin' with Salt and Pepa is a very funny take on these girls as they rap to cooking while Hey Mon is a West Indian sitcom about a very hard working family, trying to hold an average of 15 jobs each.
Ted Turner's very Colorized Classics – Casablanca sees Carrey as Turner, butchering a classic black and white film. This sketch also features Keenen doing an excellent Billy Dee Williams impersonation.
In Rallo Tommy Davidson as an old timer giving words of wisdom in a toilet stall where as Men on Books sees the return of Blayne Edwards and Antoine Merriwether to public access, this time offering their take on the classics. Moby Dick a-hoy!
Episode 8: President Jackson's Farewell Address has Keenen playing Jesse Jackson as the president of The United States in the year 2000. K-Tel Presents Cephus & Reesie Mayweather features David Alan Grier and Kim Wayans as a rather pathetic singing duet with a new record release while Carrey stars as Alan Thicke sitting in for Johnny Carson on Endangered Species, taking a look at homeboy wildlife.
Casa de Hair is a sketch on Spanish, black hair salon madness while Anton is back in This ol' Box, this time handing out D.I.Y. lessons on making that all important extension for your cardboard house.
Episode 9: The Homeboy Shopping network returns in Mo-Money with Whiz and Ice. America's Funniest Security Camera Videos features Carrey, spot on as Bob Saget in this take on America's fascination with home camera shows.
Kelly Coffield as a tough talking, Bronx stand up in Andrea Dice Clay, and the West Indian family returns for Hey Mon, this time holding several jobs onboard a plane.
In Homey the Clown Damon Wayans introduces the clown who takes no nonsense from kids. Homey is one of the most memorable characters from the show and makes for hilarious stuff; watch out for his ball in sock trick, kids.
Episode 10: We have fun for all the family in Michael Jackson Potato Head, Shaun Wayans in his latest film with Disc Jockey, Death Jockey Trailer and another service announcement in the form of School for Self-Taught.
Lil Miss Trouble has Kelly as a bratty girl who torments Carrey's geeky school kid while Uncle Joe's Fairy Tales offers an alternate take on the classic Rapunzel tale. Old Train is a wonderful take on "Soul Train" but this time for old people, and features Keenen Ivory Wayans in another excellent performance.
Vera DeMilo, Bodybuilder on the other hand is Carrey at his most grotesque, as a horse like bodybuilding female champion.
Episode 11: Damon and Keenen are two brothers who are just too white in The Brother's Brothers, Tommy Davidson is perfect as M.C. Hammer in the very funny M.C. Hammer Video and Cine-Globe is the most annoying cinema in the world - ever.
David Alan Grier gives a memorable performance as a failed Blues singer in Calhoun Tubbs while the silent classics get the Ted Turner treatment in Ted Turner's Very Colorized Classics: The Kid. Meanwhile Anton the bum gets himself into another situation in Anton on Po' People's Court, this time he tries to sue for emotional distress to the value of $5.
Episode 12: The highlight of this episode is Lil Richard's Playhouse in which Keenen plays Little Richard to perfection. Elsewhere you should beware of Hypnotists in Vortex of Fear while Ray is back in his own sitcom with Ray Charles in Charge, trying to look after a bunch of troublesome teens.
Della Reese's Pieces is a commercial for a new diet workout, Secret Council offers a look at working your way up the corporate ladder while I love Laquita is an I Love Lucy spoof.
Episode 13: Homey is back, this time at the circus in Homey The Clown's One Stop Carnival while David Alan Grier appears to be on the wrong show in the David Alan Grier Transition.
Kim Wayans features as the gossip queen Benita Butrell while the star of the Police Academy movies is back for Michael Winslow - A One Man Show. Samantha Kinison offers some angry stand up from the disturbed performer while The Buttmans are a family...and they have buttheads - literally.
Presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, In Living Color looks exceptionally good considering its age. The series was shot on tape and seems to have been preserved very well. There are no noticeable scratches or blemishes though the brightness/contrast levels do seem a little too high. The image is sharp enough, only looking soft for occasional background shots. Overall I was very surprised with this as TV shows sometime tend to get poorer treatment than they usually deserve, but this looks as good as it ever did on TV.
The English Stereo track is fairly standard for a TV series such as this. There are no real complaints here except that the audience laughter can be a little overbearing at times but that can't be helped, there's not much more you can expect from the soundtrack.
Disc 3 holds the main extras, none of which are subtitled:
Looking back In Living Color - The First Season - A 33 minute feature looking back at the secret of the show's success. Featuring interviews with Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, Rosie Perez, Director Paul D. Miller and producers, it's a shame they couldn't get more cast members to share their thoughts. Otherwise this is a decent addition to the set.
Back in Step with The Fly Girls - A 5 minute piece featuring a couple of interviews with Rosie Perez, Deidre Lang and Jossie Thacker (who didn't seem to appear in Season 1). I would have liked interviews with more of the girls as this is too short despite having some decent information.
Audio Commentary with Tommy Davidson for episodes 7 and 13 - Tommy gives some good insight into what it was like working on set along with his experiences with Keenen and friends. At times there is the occasional pause but overall both are decent tracks. I am however a little disappointed that they couldn't get anyone else onboard to provide commentary tracks.
I couldn't be more pleased with this release. It's been a joy to re-visit such a classic show that defined the way we looked at stereotypes and different cultures, one that went all out to be different and succeeded. But In Living Color was more than that - It was very much ahead of its time, fresh, hilarious and down right hit every mark. Fingers crossed that Season 2 won't be far behind because that's when things really got going with "The Head Detective" and much more. FOX has done a great job in releasing this show. The fact it even made a DVD release was shocking at first but no less welcomed. At last one of the most entertaining TV comedy shows is available and it's one worth cherishing.