Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a new feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past! On Thursdays, I will be reviewing City Guys, which ran on NBC from 1997 to 2001. The entire show is currently streaming on Tubi!
The year was 1997 and everyone loved TNBC. Well, not everyone. Actually, I imagine that most people over the age of 30 had no idea what TNBC was. But, if you were a kid in the 90s and the early aughts, you knew that Sunday morning was when NBC aired shows like Saved By The Bell, California Dreams, and Hang Time. Produced by Peter S. Engel, these shows all took place in an idealized teen world where everyone was pretty, the schools were always clean, and every problem could be resolved in 30 minutes.
But, in the early 90s, TNBC was struggling a bit. Saved By The Bell: The New Class was not as popular as the original Saved By The Bell and California Dreams had just ended. For his next show, Peter Engel decided to do something a bit edgier than the sitcoms for which he was best known. He came up with City Guys, a show set not in California or Hang Time‘s Indiana. Instead, City Guys would be set in New York and it would feature a multi-racial cast. It would feature two best friends, one black and one white. It would be relevant and edgy while still recycling the same plots that had already been done to death on Saved By The Bell and California Dreams!
It would be City Guys, a celebration of city people!
So, how edgy was City Guys?
Just check out the theme song!
They’re smart and streetwise! They’re the neat guys! They’re the City Guys! Roll with them!
I can only imagine what that nickname did for their street cred.
Anyway, I admit that I coming across City Guys on Tubi made me feel just a little nostalgic for the days when I would randomly come across episodes of City Guys and Saved By The Bell playing in syndication so I decided to rewatch the show, which was perhaps a mistake because, so far, City Guys has not been as good as I remembered. In fact, it’s been pretty bad.
Just consider the first two episodes:
1.1 “New Kids”
(Directed by Frank Bonner, aired on September 6th, 1997)
It’s the first day of school at Bayside …. oh, sorry. My mistake. We’re not at Bayside and we’re not in Los Angeles. Instead, we are at Manhattan High and we are totally in New York. Don’t let the fact that the show was obviously filmed on the same sound stage as Saved By The Bell and California Dreams fool you. We are totally in the city!
The first episode of City Guys does what a typical first episode does. It introduces our main characters and portrays them as stereotypically as possible. Alberto (Dion Basco) is quickly established as being this show’s annoying sidekick when he rides up to the school on his bicycle and announces that his name is now “Al Rocket!” Dawn Tartikoff (Caitlin Mowery) is established as being the show’s annoying overachiever when she shows up in her first scene carrying a sign about saving the environment. Tina (Gina McClain) is the pretty model who looks down on everyone else and whose character is destined to be dropped from the show after this episode.
And then there’s Jamal (Wesley Jonathan) and Chris (Scott Whyte). Jamal is black and lower middle-class. Chris is white and rich. That’s pretty much all the characterization that the first episode bothers to give them. They’re both transfer students at Manny High. Jamal was kicked out of his last school for fighting but he explains that he was more of a “punching bag” than a fighter. Chris was kicked out of several schools and apparently “flooded the soccer field.” How exactly did he do that? That’s never explained but everyone still seems to be really impressed when they hear about it.
At first, Chris and Jamal don’t get along. Jamal thinks that Chris is a spoiled rich kid. Chris calls Jamal “homey the clown.” The studio audiences loves it, even while future viewers cringe. Jamal bets Chris $20 that he can’t get a date with Tina. The wise and no-nonsense principal, Ms. Noble (Marcella Lowery), decides that the best way to get these two to shape up is to force them to paint the new school mural.
Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a graffiti already on the wall. El-Train (Steven Daniel) has tagged the wall and he threatens to kill anyone who paints over it. In future episodes, El-Train would become a kind-hearted sidekick to the main characters and would serve largely as comic relief. In this episode, he’s the school bully who everyone fears. Jamal tries to avoid angering El-Train by painting around the tag. But then Jamal sabotages Chris’s attempt to date Tina so Chris paints over El-Train’s name because …. I guess Chris is trying to get Jamal killed? That seems like an overreaction.
Fortunately, Chris learns the errors of his ways and, when Jamal and El-Train have their inevitable fight on the roof of the school, Chris confesses that he was the one who did painted over El-Train’s name. Then Ms. Noble shows up and sends everyone back to class, except for El-Train who gets suspended and whose name is revealed to actually be Lionel. Chris and Jamal make fun of El-Train’s real name, no longer concerned about dying because Ms. Noble apparently has the power to magically quash all beefs.
Still, Ms. Noble isn’t going to just shrug off Chris’s attempt to get Jamal killed. She orders the two of them to work as co-editors of the “video yearbook.” Because, seriously, why shouldn’t the yearbook be used as a behavior modification experiment?
The end credits roll. I’m sure these neat guys will have all sorts of adventures over the next four years of high school!
1.2 “For The Love Of Mother”
(Directed by Frank Bonner, aired on September 13, 1997)
Immediately after the opening credits of the second episode of City Guys, it becomes clear that things have certainly changed from last week.
Chris and Jamal have gone from being weary acquaintances to best friends!
Ms. Noble now knows all of the students and speaks to them as if she’s known them for years!
Tina has vanished and been replaced, as Dawn’s best friend, by Cassidy (Marissa Dyan). Cassidy is just as blonde and pretty as Tina but the actress is a bit less abrasive!
El-Train is nowhere to be seen!
For that matter, neither is the video yearbook that Chris and Jamal are supposed to be working on. Instead, this episode centers around Jamal’s sudden proficiency as a keyboardist and Chris’s desire to have a closer relationship with his mom (played by a very chic Susan Anton). When Mrs. Anderson visits the school, she hears Jamal playing the keyboards that he’s just purchased from Al. Mrs. Anderson takes Jamal under her wing and even arranges for him to play at a fundraiser that she’s hosting for the school’s music department. Chris gets jealous because his mom promised to take him to an Eric Clapton concert on the same night of the fundraiser….
Wait …. Eric Clapton? In the year 1997, were teenagers really going crazy over Eric Clapton tickets? Maybe one can excuse Chris for being into Clapton because he’s supposed to be a rich outsider. But all of the other students at Manhattan High are just as excited as he is about the chance to see Eric Clapton perform live. (What 15 year-old in 1997 wouldn’t be excited about hearing Wonderful Tonight live!?) NBC certainly had its finger on the pulse of youth culture! Of course, the main reason why the students are so excited about Eric Clapton is because the middle-aged people who wrote and produced this show would have been excited about Eric Clapton. It’s an example of how City Guys, a show about young people growing up on the hard streets of New York City, was created by people who were neither young nor New Yorkers.
This episode of City Guys also features a Japanese cook, who, of course, has a temper, bows whenever anyone insults him, and who speaks heavily accented English. He’s portrayed as being such a stereotype that I’m surprised they didn’t have someone hit a gong every time he entered a room. City Guys was a show about how whites and blacks should get along but apparently, the message of respect and defying stereotypes didn’t extend to Asians.
Anyway, it all works out in the end. Jamal impresses all the old white people with his music. Chris gets over being jealous. Mrs. Anderson …. well, she remains the same.
So, that’s it for the first two episodes of City Guys. Will the show get better or was I led astray by nostalgia? Check here next Thursday for my thoughts on episodes three and four!