It's not a diss to call "Belle's" (10 p.m. TV One), an old-fashioned sitcom; it's just accurate. The half-hour show (you'll get two episodes tonight) feels like something from a simpler era. It's a quaint, gentle and mildly amusing outing.
By its description, you might (if you are old enough) think of "Frank's Place," the much-revered Tim Reid comedy. Like that show, "Belle's" is set in restaurant (that setting and the lack of a laugh track is where the "Frank's Place" comparison ends, sadly); it's a soul food place. William "Big Bill" Cooper (Keith David) is the owner. He's a fairly recent widower. It's a family operation: Jil (Elise Neal) is Bill's oldest daughter and runs the front of the house; Gladys (Ella Joyce) is his sister-in-law and head cook; Loreta (Tami Roman) is Bill's youngest and diva daughter; Pam (Nadja Alaya) is Jil's daughter and the show's narrator. Also in on the adventures is Maurice (Belle's exec producer/co-creator Miguel Nunez), a womanizing bartender.
Unfortunately "Belle's" looks like it's filmed on a set rather than in a restaurant, and that artificial feeling just adds to the sinking feeling you'll have when you realize, despite the capable cast, the show isn't as good as you were hoping. The first episode was kind of interesting in light of the debate around slavery sparked by "Django Unchained." A white man wants to rent the restaurant for a family reunion; as it turns out, his family is the one that enslaved Cooper's wife's family. The Belle's family is divided with some wanting to take the well-paying business and others arguing to turn it away in an act of ... well, something I don't know.
That's part of the problem; while the issue resonates, the debate doesn't really make sense. And as if recognizing that, the resolution is kind of sweet and milquetoast.
Ed. Weinberger, a TV legend behind "The Cosby Show" and "Taxi," is behind this show, which is not a bad pedigree. Maybe with that kind of experienced hand, "Belle's" gets sharper as it moves forward. Gentleness isn't bad in these snarky, cranky times; it may even be healthy. But there's got to sharp storytelling if there's not going to be sharp comedy. "Belle's" is lacking in both areas.