A sense of place isn’t always necessary for a sitcom, but the best ones contain jokes that grow from their setting. Workplace comedies have bars, offices, and local government departments that often come together best after a season or two of casual definition. Comedy Central’s sunny South Side has half a city, yet finds its heart immediately. Creators and writers Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle tap into their locale and unleash just a little of its comic potential to hilarious results. It helps that they’re walking the walk. They show up in their own locally-shot series as a cop and a lawyer, respectively, in addition to their behind-the-scenes duties. Their heavy involvement is just one sign of the close-knit production that makes South Side one of the year’s most exciting and accessible comedies.
Bashir’s brother (also a show co-creator) Sultan stars as Simon who, along with K (Kareme Young), recently graduated Kennedy-King College and works as a rental furniture repo man for K’s twin Q (Quincy Young) at Rent-T-Own. The store and the cops have a tenuous relationship as both sides try to make their money and keep shenanigans to a minimum. The pairs of brothers are exceptional and Chandra Russell, who plays Bashir’s partner and also serves as a writer, is another breakout. Come to think of it, there are few in the cast who don’t stand out as funny, energetic voices that should’ve been dominating comedy a long time ago.
The Youngs are masters of the soft-spoken deadpan. In a heated conversation, one might turn to a customer and dryly explain, “Sorry, ma’am, but my brother’s a bitch.” Kareme is the nerdy, space-obsessed foil to Sultan’s slick fast-talker, while Quincy kicks off episode-opening employee meetings with droll requests that never fail to get a laugh. Russell’s chaotic horny aura flusters Bashir’s constantly put-upon stick in the mud. But Bashir even gets his own musical moments scattered throughout the season. It’s a show of buzzing balance where partnerships are always unlikely, but where everything fits into its intimate tone.
The show is filled with endearing hometown references like wimpy-sounding suburbs, wacky-sounding rap names, name-dropped colleges and restaurants (a whole episode is spent attempting to replicate Harold’s sauce), and the most Chicago thing of all, corruption. Simon and K learn in the pilot to exploit the systems around them instead of trying to escape into bougie new ones. This spin on the climber story engine works wonders because everyone’s goals are just so realistic. The show has a scheming, anti-establishment It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia energy that uses the madcap ambitions of its central characters to fuel its episodes. These aren’t even get-rich-quick schemes; South Side’s characters are happy with pay-my-damn-bills schemes. After a small boon, Simon’s co-worker erupts in excitement: “I’m gonna take a weekend trip to Milwaukee!”
That’s just one of the ways South Side hilariously undercuts traditional workplace sitcom jokes as it carves out its comedy niche. The writers love showing off their acrobatic talent of bouncing between the poles of high and lowbrow, dazzling with flashes of surrealism. When an old woman films an arrest at a retirement home with a full-ass camcorder, it’s clear that Salahuddin and Riddle are here to inject cleverness into every situation imaginable. A mean old civil rights activist shares a name with Chicago’s corrupt Circuit Court Clerk. Jeff Tweedy shows up to help record a song, only for it to be replaced by a terrible trap remix.
Director Michael Blieden not adds variety to the show with intercut segments and throwaway gags, but gets Englewood’s beauty and all the warm signifiers of Chicago that link it to its self-serious crosstown cousin Easy. Wrought iron fences surround the bungalows and two-flats; CTA buses drive by, then serve as settings for chase scenes; the camera rises past an elevated train track. It feels like home, and not just because I live in the city. It meets everyone in the basement, at the store, on the job. Capping episodes with hilariously wrong news reports says what the rest of the episodes show: there’s a wide gulf between perception and experience.
I blew through the first season’s ten episodes. Even if their A and B-plots don’t always match up as thematically as hoped (and some jokes feel like placeholders for better-written alternatives that never materialized), there’s always something in each episode to keep you hooked and keep you surprised. Maybe it’s Lil Rel Howery running a barbershop in a basement; maybe it’s Kel Mitchell getting hit by a truck full of meatballs. South Side isn’t here to play in Atlanta’s haunting surrealism or find pathos with its imperfect families, and that’s just fine. It’s wild, weird, and 100% worth visiting on its own merits.
South Side premieres Wednesday, July 24th on Comedy Central.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.