In 2017, Lil Rel Howery made a splash in Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out as TSA agent Rod Williams, in which he stole just about every scene he was in. In addition to starring in the summer comedy Uncle Drew and putting in a funny appearance in Tag, Howery has managed to parlay his recent successes into Rel, a self-titled sitcom on FOX the premiere of which is getting a deserved post-NFL ratings boots by the network. The series opener offers up a funny, likable pilot that quickly establishes its basic premise before letting its star and supporting cast — which includes Sinbad as Rel’s father — go about the business of making the audience laugh.
Howery’s no stranger to sitcoms; he played Jarrod Carmichael’s brother on NBC’s The Carmichael Show (Carmichael is credited as an executive producer on Rel), but here he gets to take center stage as a recently divorced man trying to put his life back together after his wife cheated on him with his barber, and while trying to be a long-distance father to his two kids. Rel doesn’t put too much emphasis on its lead character’s wife or kids, both remain off camera throughout the pilot. Rel engages with his children via FaceTime, which feels mostly like narrative spackle, or heading off questions related to his being a father down the road. It’s akin to Friends when Ross and Rachel’s child was handed to other characters offscreen so the series didn’t have to deal with a baby or writing lines for a child actor. Rel isn’t that kind of series, anyway; its focus is on its title character and the people who are there for him — in varying degrees — as he suffers through the pain of losing his wife to the man who cuts his hair and, more crucially, learns he bears a certain responsibility for his own misfortune.
Rel’s support group begins with his best friend Brittany (Jessica ‘Jess Hilarious’ Moore) and his little brother Nat (Jordan L. Jones), who was formerly incarcerated for dealing ecstasy. Their father, who, after a lengthy, exposition-filled introduction scene set in Rel’s now-unfurnished apartment, is introduced when the brothers attend church, comes very close to stealing the show, by delivering a barrage of acidic lines and expressing his disappointment in his boys by refusing to sit with them during the service.
Though Sinbad immediately establishes himself as a reliable source of the show’s biggest laughs, church is largely in service to Howery’s other role as a boisterous preacher who sets his sights on Rel’s misfortune as the topic of the day while addressing his flock. Given the circumstances of his personal life, the dual role actually serves as an opportunity for Rel to offer up an even more lively performance and join in on the running gag of everyone finding humor in Rel’s personal misery.
Despite the jokes had at his expense, the pilot episode doesn’t lean on mean spirited humor for laughs. Instead, Rel sees its character’s tribulations as both an opportunity for some introspection and an opening for a lot more ribbing at his expense. The pilot’s second half largely involves Rel’s attempts to get back at his barber by dating a woman he had set his sights on and who Rel previously rejected on account of her wearing “loose boots.” The inanity of this superficial dismissal has a Seinfeld-like quality that continues all the way through Rel’s further public humiliation once “loose boots” gets wind of his scheme.
Those indignities are, oddly, part of what makes Rel tick. The show delivers a community where seemingly random people are intimately aware one man’s personal setbacks. A scene on a city bus underlines this idea as Rel is roasted by Jaymo (D.C. Young Fly), whose cracks not only go unchallenged by Nat, but they are the start of a friendship between the two. The idea that Rel has unwittingly achieved some sort of notoriety within his community is funny enough, but the series displays a deft hand in turning it into a running gag without undermining its lead character’s likability.
In all, it’s easy to see why FOX would hand Rel its post double-header slot, as the new sitcom delivers an impressive pilot that gets over its expository hurdle early and manages to introduce a stellar supporting cast that makes this an entertaining bright spot in the network’s fall lineup.
Rel will begin its season in its regular time slot on Sunday, September 30.