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TODAY'S PAPER

'Rel' review: Likable cast can't save this tepid, formulaic sitcom

 Lil Rel Howery stars in Fox's "Rel," which feels like it's "networkized," which means the setups are obvious.  / FOX/Ray Mickshaw

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Rel (Lil Rel Howery) is sorting out what's left in his empty apartment after his wife has moved out, and is still trying to figure out what happened. A hardworking father of two on the West Side of Chicago, he finds out she's been having an affair with his barber. "Not my mailman, or my garbage man but my confidante." His best friend Brittany (Jessica “Jess Hilarious” Moore) offers moral support and a suggestion, while his younger brother Nat (Jordan L. Jones) does as well. Their overbearing and recently widowed father, a preacher (Sinbad) isn't so nurturing. This multicamera sitcom is thinly autobiographical, while Sinbad returns to Fox for the first time in a quarter-century, since "The Sinbad Show" of the early '90s.  

MY SAY "Rel" is actually Howery's third series for Fox, although it would take a fairly obscure "Jeopardy" category to name the other two. Back in 2012, he starred  in the reboot of "In Living Color" which never got to air, then in 2014, the late night animated series, "Lucas Bros. Moving Co." Since then, there was "Friends of the People" (a sketch comedy for TruTV), NBC's "The Carmichael Show," HBO's "Insecure," and then the breakout role, as "Get Out's" TSA agent Rod Williams who saves the day and gets some of the best lines in the bargain.

This is what's called a good, clean, well-managed career trajectory. The shows range from amusing ("Lucas") to groundbreaking ("Carmichael"). "Get Out" will be a classic one day, but for the moment, is still watchable and teachable after multiple viewings.

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Which gets us to "Rel" and what may be the first detour — if not quite pothole — on that trajectory. Harmless enough and so low on calories that it almost floats off the screen, "Rel" is the kind of sitcom you suspected Howery might end up doing but hoped he wouldn't. But the siren song of Hollywood is irresistible, the money insane, and there's always an audience around to fill up a chilly theater to laugh at jokes no self-respecting audience should laugh at. "Rel" isn't terrible, just predictable. Debate among yourselves which is the worse fate.

"Rel" feels like it's gone through the dreaded Network Comedy Blender rendering it "networkized," which means the setups are obvious, the payoffs conspicuous. Networks occasionally love these kinds of series because that means they're inoffensive to everyone.

But sometimes an offense is the best defense. Take as an example, Jerrod Carmichael, who may have ultimately fractured his relationship with NBC but in the meantime consistently turned out a show that was about something important, from gun control to "fallen heroes" (Bill Cosby). Carmichael in fact is the executive producer of "Rel" along with Mike Scully, who was only the showrunner of a little series called "The Simpsons." They're playing it safe here — way too safe.

 Enough griping: The good news with "Rel" is Howery, who remains likable, and his supporting cast, which is as well. Taped elsewhere but based in Chicago, "Rel" just might get around to the real issues that have beset that great city. The best comedies on TV these days are tragedies anyway. Why not "Rel" eventually, too? At least that would banish the charge that the show is predictable.  

BOTTOM LINE Likable lead and cast, but "Rel" otherwise feels like a tepid, tame commercial network sitcom.