Kenan Is the Best of NBC’s New SitcomsPhotos by Casey Durkin, courtesy of NBC Comedy Features Kenan
NBC has launched three new sitcoms so far in 2021. One of them stars one of the most popular actors in the world today, and is a sweet, nostalgic show that’s (very) loosely based on his childhood. Another is headlined by a TV legend and was co-created by one of the most acclaimed comedy writers of the era. The third has understandably received much less attention than the other two, with both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic listing less than half the number of reviews of either of the other shows. That’s disappointing, as that third show, Kenan, has so far been a far funnier and better written show than either Young Rock or Mr. Mayor.
Yes, a show that feels like it should’ve had a six-week run on one of NBC’s non-Must See TV nights back in the ‘90s has so far outperformed the latest sitcoms from Nahnatchka Khan and Tina Fey. From the name down to the premise, Kenan might’ve seemed like the kind of uninspired sitcom every marginally popular comedian got in the wake of Seinfeld—Kenan Thompson plays a version of himself who’s a single dad of two daughters and hosts a local Atlanta morning show. And although Kenan has fallen back on a number of familiar sitcom tropes and situations, it’s still been consistently funny in a way neither Young Rock or Mr. Mayor have been able to achieve.
It comes down to the two things that pretty much all good TV requires: good writing and a talented cast with legitimate charisma. Young Rock has the latter, although outside of Dwayne Johnson’s bookends, it’s short on starpower. Mr. Mayor has what looks like a tremendous cast on paper, including Ted Danson, Holly Hunter, and Bobby Moynihan, but they didn’t really gel during the already finished first season, and the machine gun spray of jokes you expect from a Tina Fey and Robert Carlock show hit way less often than it did on 30 Rock or Unbelievable Kimmy Schmidt. (I hate to say it, as a lifelong fan of hers and a fellow Georgian, but Holly Hunter hasn’t been a good fit for the Fey/Carlock style, and her utterly thankless character is only part of the reason why.)
Kenan, meanwhile, balances legitimate starpower and hilarious performances with sharp comedy writing and stories that can feel human and relatable without becoming too saccharine. Kenan Thompson obviously isn’t The Rock or Ted Danson, but he has been on Saturday Night Live longer than anybody, and he’s generally earned the respect of most critics with his consistently delightful performances. He’s also pretty much beloved by anybody who was a kid during his time on All That and Kenan and Kel. His Kenan co-star Don Johnson isn’t quite on the same level as Ted Danson in terms of television royalty, but he’s still a legend in his own right, headlining the pop culture phenomenon Miami Vice in the ‘80s, the popular Nash Bridges in the ‘90s and ‘00s, and easing into a role as an in-demand elder statesman character actor in Eastbound & Down, Watchmen, Knives Out, and more. And Chris Redd, one of Thompson’s castmates on SNL, gets to channel his unique comic energy—somehow both highwire and laconic at once—into a character that is the single funniest role in any of these three shows.
Importantly, the three stars of Kenan instantly meshed into a great comic trio. Johnson’s easygoing charm and Redd’s unpredictability are distinct notes that nicely complement Thompson, who’s largely working in overstressed everyman mode, although with more than enough opportunity for his innate charisma and goofiness to shine through. All three know exactly how and when to deliver their lines, establishing in the show’s first few episodes the kind of second nature rapport that many sitcoms don’t quite reach in multiple seasons. And although some of the secondary cast hasn’t had a chance to shine yet, Kimrie Lewis as Kenan’s producer and Dani and Dannah Lane as his daughters are integral members of the ensemble, more than holding their own with Thompson, Johnson, and Redd.
When you look at the credits for Kenan, whatever surprise you might have about its quality disappears. Creator David Caspe isn’t quite as celebrated as Young Rock’s co-creator Khan (who gave us the wonderful Fresh Off the Boat and Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23) or Robert Carlock and Tina Fey (who, uh, y’know, is Tina Fey), but he was the creator of the cult favorite sitcom Happy Endings. Fantastic comedians like Yassir Lester, Langston Kerman, Sam Jay and Carl Tart are credited as various kinds of producers, and the writing staff is full of recognizable names from other notable shows. It’s not like the writing rooms of Mr. Mayor and Young Rock aren’t also staffed by talented comedy writers, but all the elements of a good sitcom have snapped into place faster and more snugly with Kenan than those other shows so far.
Kenan also does something that’s become more common on TV but still not common enough: it’s set in a normal, realistic, believable version of Atlanta, without any of the cartoonish stereotypes or exaggerated Southerness you often see in shows based in the South. That alone wins Kenan a ton of goodwill from me, but it’s the quality of the show itself that makes me look forward to watching it every week.
Despite its strengths, don’t go expecting anything revelatory or amazing from Kenan. It’s a very well made sitcom, but one that doesn’t try to break out of that mold. It also still hasn’t completely found its way—Kenan’s workplace and home life still feel like two slightly different shows, and it might be best if it dropped the job and just focused on Kenan’s family. But for a show that launched with the least amount of hype or attention out of three new sitcoms, Kenan has quickly established itself as the best of the bunch, and the one most likely to turn into something genuinely great.
Kenan airs on Tuesday nights at 8:30 p.m. on NBC, and streams on Peacock.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.