In 1984, NBC debuted “The Cosby Show,” a comedy about a well adjusted upper-class black family that became a runaway hit fueled by the charms of Bill Cosby and his fictional brood. The groundbreaking show revived the sitcom genre and cemented NBC’s reputation as a comedy haven for years to come.
BET’s mission in 2011 isn’t quite the same but executives are hoping a new ”Cosby”-like sitcom “Reed Between the Lines” starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo on “Cosby”) and Tracee Ellis Ross (”Girlfriends”) will further obliterate the network’s old reputation as that booty-shaking music video channel. The show, shot at Turner Studios in Midtown, debuts Tuesday, October 11, at 10 p.m., with a second new episode right afterwards at 10:30 p.m.
“I can say we didn’t set to do an update on ‘Cosby,’ ” said Charlie Jordan Brookins, BET vice president of original programming, “What we set out to do is create a modern-day African-American family.”
Warner, in a phone interview last month during a lunch break from production, agreed: “We want to create the Cosby universality, that family love environment that transcends race.”
Ross plays a therapist, Carla Reed, happily married to Alex, an on-line professor played by Warner. Carla had twins with her first husband but divorced. She eventually married Alex and they had their own daughter. “It’s a blended family but a blended family that works,” Jordan Brookins said.
When BET approached Ross about the idea of her character being in the mental health field, she was immediately intrigued and signed on. “I had created a self-help workshop for African-American teen girls and was going around the country,” Ross said. “I’d ask the girls what they watch on TV and most of them watch BET. I’d ask why. They said those people look like us.”
When Warner came to audition, Ross said, “it was like the clouds parted and our divine partnership occurred! There was a really good flow. It was the first time I understood who Dr. Carla Reed was. I got to feel her in my body. It’s a beautiful relationship between two people who respect, support and accept each other.”
“It was instant rapport,” Warner added. The pair, who had never worked together before, also signed on as executive producers.
“It’s a wonderful experience to have a voice in the process,” Ross said.
“I’m grateful to be part of this type of show,” Warner said. “We all keep saying it’s what television needs.”
The comedy is old school, with cute kids, quick banter and a laugh track. It’s not brash or overly broad. In the episode sent to me for screening, Carla feels insecure about her own sexiness when a pretty patient with a sex addiction meets her husband. Warner, his sharp comic timing honed by decades of experience, plays Alex warm, sexy and confident. Ross gives Carla a grounded presence but works in plenty of physical humor.
“Reed Between the Lines” is BET’s third original scripted show in its current line-up. Last year, BET picked up “The Game” from the ashes of the CW, which had canceled the show in 2009. BET also launched a new relationship-oriented comedy “Let’s Stay Together.” The two shows, also shot in Atlanta, brought in boffo ratings and were renewed. (Ratings did slip on both shows throughout the season last year so it’ll be interesting to see how things play out this fall when the shows return.)
“The Game,” Jordan Brookins noted, “was the game changer for us.”
“Reed Between the Lines” is BET’s first original family show, though the network now airs plenty of older sitcoms with family themes such as “The Bernie Mac Show” and “Everybody Hates Chris.”
BET still draws a primarily black audience but Warner said he and Ross “are very consciously bringing our brands to BET and reaching out to like-minded individuals who may not have been a BET watcher. We know how some people feel about the network. Things are changing. Come give our show a chance. Give the network a chance.”
Warner is proud of his “Cosby” legacy and still feels a bit battered by his time at the UPN in the late 1990s starring in “Malcolm & Eddie” on a network that once aired a comedy called “Homeboys in Outer Space.” “That show makes us all cringe,” said Ross, who said she did have a positive experience on the network with “Girlfriends,” which aired from 2000 to 2008.
Neither actor said they’ve gotten to see much of Atlanta outside the studio and their hotel rooms given the very tight schedules BET places them on. “I feel like we’re doing 700 episodes a week,” Ross said. But she wasn’t complaining. Since time is money, cable networks usually do episodes in three or four days instead of a week for major networks and will sometimes juggle multiple episodes at once. It’s a cost-efficient model Tyler Perry follows for his TBS sitcoms.
“Reed Between the Lines,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, BET