I don't care if it's damning the show with the faintest of praise, but I still want to give TBS' "Are We There Yet?" a little credit. It's many times better than the ineptly made Ice Cube family comedy of the same name that serves as its vague basis. That mirthless hit was, itself, many times better than the 2007 sequel "Are We Done Yet?," which did to "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" what BP is doing to the Gulf Coast. 
 
I'm not going to go so far as to say that TBS' "Are We There Yet?" is especially good (or even slightly memorable), but at least it will provide a dark horse answer in those frequently rehashed "List TV shows that improved upon the movie that spawned them" debates.
 
[Click through for a full review of "Are We There Yet?," which seems destined for a long cable run.]
 
When it comes to the minor amelioration of the "Are We There Yet?" franchise, there's no great mystery. The first movie was first written by Steven Gary Banks and Claudia Grazioso and then rewritten by the folks whose later credits included "Daddy Day Camp." The second movie was then literally retrofitted from a bad idea Ice Cube-driven remake of "Mr. Blandings" into a sequel that nobody particularly wanted mid-way through pre-production.
 
TBS' "Are We There Yet?" comes from Ali LeRoi, the terrifically talented man behind "Everybody Hates Chris."
 
Mystery solved.
 
LeRoi, who also directed two of the three episodes sent to critics, is a massive creative upgrade for the franchise. He also brought along "Everybody Hates Chris" co-star Terry Crews, a much more dextrous comic actor than original star Ice Cube.
 
Don't let those superficial similarities fool you, of course. "Are We There Yet?" isn't nearly on the same level as "Everybody Hates Chris," which never found the audience to match its level of critical acclaim and was jettisoned when The CW simultaneously ditched both comedy and minority-centric programming. 
 
While LeRoi and not long-time collaborator Chris Rock provided the comedic voice of "Everybody Hates Chris," Rock's biographical details provided the specificity of time period, geography and class that helped elevate "Chris" above the standard of the Generic Urban Sitcom that TV networks aren't interested in making anymore and that even TBS has mostly only made with a Tyler Perry safety net.
 
"Are We There Yet?" is resolutely generic in almost every way, but LeRoi and the capable cast still manage to get the occasional chuckle.
 
Truthfully, if "Are We There Yet?" had a different title and didn't feature Ice Cube as a producer, you wouldn't know or care that it came from a movie. 
 
Crews plays Nick Parsons, a former athlete and sports paraphernalia broker now working a totally irrelevant job and newly married to Suzanne (Essence Atkins), also busy-yet-successful at an irrelevant job. Married for six months, the couple live in an irrelevant middle class neighborhood in an irrelevant city (Seattle, but irrelevantly so), where they're raising Suzanne's Generic Growing Up Too Fast Daughter (Teala Dunn) and Generic Not Manly In a Way Nick Can Relate To Son (Coy Stewart). Suzanne has a Sassy Gold-Digging Best Friend (Keesha Sharp), while Nick has a Cougar Mom (Telma Hopkins) and a White Best Friend (Christian Finnegan).
 
I put the characters in upper-case because every one of them is designed to straddle that line between "stereotype" and "archetype," that line that allows you to instantly recognize the characters without, hopefully, thinking you're watching something blatantly racist.
 
Your results may vary, but I never stopped thinking that if TBS wanted a sitcom from Ali LeRoi and starring Terry Crews, maybe the network should have just ponied up the dough to bring "Everybody Hates Chris" back. Over and over again in that show's four-season run, the creative team proved their willingness to shoot fast and cheap, almost as a way of preemptively keeping UPN and then The CW from canceling it. That was a show with rich characters, a sense of time and place. This is a show with pop culture references aimed at keeping the show in a perpetual Anywhere and in a perpetual Now that could be any time between 2005 and 2010, almost.
 
In "Chris," Crews played one of those great stern-yet-loving dads (possibly another archetype/stereotype straddle), while here he's stuck playing a variation on Ice Cube's toothless family-friendly persona. He's better with the physical comedy -- he dances, flails at playing soccer, etc -- than at at the verbal levity because LeRoi and company are afraid to acknowledge that as funny as Crews is, the former NFL journeyman is also an intimidating dude. "Chris" was a comedy that acknowledged and found humor in making Crews just a bit threatening, but that's a level of nuance TBS seems not to desire. 
 
I watched both the original "Are We There Yet?" and "Are We Done Yet?" -- both on airplanes, both on long flights when my laptop ran out of juice -- and I actually had to look up the female lead. Sorry, Nia Long. Atkins already has more of a character in three episodes here than Long got in two features, which again isn't saying very much. A veteran of the long run of "Half and Half," Atkins has fine timing and gets reasonable mileage out of what she's given.
 
And as he did on "Chris," LeRoi has found solid child co-stars who keep the mugging to a minimum. 
 
The same can't be said for the supporting players. Sharp whirls into a subplot each episode as if she's gracing "Are We There Yet?" with her presence before returning to her scene-stealing role in a far broader sitcom from the '80s, probably one in which she's the new tenant on "227." At least Sharp is flamboyant enough that some viewers will probably laugh at/with her. Nobody's going to laugh at Finnegan, who's either miscast or just woefully unfunny (I'll generously suspect/assume the former). 
 
Ice Cube hams it up in the pilot as Suzanne's brother, a black-ops commando  willing to do anything to preserve his sister's happiness. It's not like Ice Cube isn't capable of being funny, as fans of "Friday" or "Three Kings" can tell you, but he isn't automatically funny and, in this cameo, he's dreadfully hammy. The only laugh I got from Ice Cube's appearance was in picturing how Ice Cube circa 1990 would react to 2010 Ice Cube proving so woefully inept at playing even a buffoonish version of "dangerous" or "tough." If this version of Ice Cube told you that his idea of a good day was one in which he didn't have to use his AK, you'd pinch him on the cheek and giggle.
 
"Are We There Yet?" is being produced for TBS under the same Debmar-Mercury model as the Tyler Perry's "House of Payne" and "Meet the Browns," meaning that the network has ordered 10 episodes, with an option for 90 more. 
 
Both Perry shows got that whopping 90-episode pick-up and both Tyler Perry shows are, for this viewer at least, unwatchable -- they're cheap-looking, lowest-common denominator hits. Taken by that standard, "Are We There Yet?" is a major step forward.
 
I'll keep trying to come up with more faint praise for "Are We There Yet?" because otherwise, I'd only marvel at the state of an industry in which a talent like LeRoi can basically only find a forum rewriting bad movies on basic cable, while networks are perfectly happy to give primetime real estate to dreck like "Hank" or "100 Questions" or, in the name of diversity, "Brothers." But complaints like that would probably constitute burying the lede for a very different approach to a fairly mediocre comedy.
 
"Are We There Yet" premieres on TBS on Wednesday, June 2 with two episodes starting at 9 p.m.