'Somebodies' turns positive Ebertfest showing into TV gold

CHAMPAIGN – Writer, filmmaker and actor Hadjii – on his cellphone with this reporter – was walking down the street in Athens, Ga., on Friday afternoon when a passer-by asked:

"You in that show?"

"Yeah, Tuesdays at 10. Spread the word," Hadjii replied.

That show is "Somebodies," a spinoff of Hadjii's independent feature of the same title that he brought to Roger Ebert's Film Festival at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign in 2006.

The Ebertfest audience embraced it, and television critics who have seen the BET series – the first scripted series in BET's 28-year history – are giving it good reviews, with Associated Press television writer Frazier Moore calling it one of five new series to watch.

"It doesn't get much better than the AP running a nice review on you," Hadjii told The News-Gazette.

Other newspaper critics are giving the series, which, like the film, was shot on location in Athens, good notices too.

Robert Lloyd, television critic for The Los Angeles Times, wrote:

"The Southern, small-town setting and extensive location shooting contribute to that mood and set the series apart not only from the few black comedies managing to survive elsewhere on the dial but from most every other sitcom."

Lloyd also wrote that Hadjii, who plays Scottie, a perennial undergraduate, isn't the most natural actor in his ensemble, which features most of the cast from the movie.

"But he grows on you," Lloyd wrote. "I took his diamond-pattern sweater, with his round, shaved head, to be a kind of a visual reference to the Charlie Brown-ness of his character – and a couple of episodes in, ex-girlfriend Diva (Kaira Akita, formerly Kaira Whitehead) does indeed refer to his 'Charlie Brown big fat head.'

"And though his character is the nominal center of the action, Hadjii hasn't pushed himself to the forefront. As often as not he's playing the straight man, content to let his pals – Nard Holston, Anthony K. Hyatt, Corey Redding and Quante Strickland – bounce their various attitudes off one another, his relatives lecture him, his minister rants. There is a lot of social satire specific to the black experience but also incursions into 'Seinfeld' territory, as in a series of scenes about not wanting to taste another person's food.

"Sweet, lyrical and a little cracked, it's worth seeking out" Lloyd wrote.

So far, two of 10 episodes have broadcast and remain available for viewing at www.BET.com. The next eight episodes will air at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays on BET.

"We know 'Somebodies" has a really strong following in C-U, and we encourage them all to take a look," said Nate Kohn, an Urbana native who co-produced the feature "Somebodies" as well as the BET series. Kohn also is director of Ebertfest.

Kohn and Hadjii don't know yet whether BET will order additional episodes of "Somebodies." Kohn said he doesn't think BET President Reginald Hudlin's recent resignation will have long-term effects on the prospect for the series.

Hadjii said he's just thankful that people seem to be getting his series and giving the show a fighting chance, and that some good series end up being overlooked.

"It's so important that we get the word out about the show," Hadjii said. "It's a different type of show in terms of what we're trying to do."

Like the movie, the series focuses on Scottie and his circle of friends.

"With mostly black characters (notable enough for TV comedies and dramas), it has a funny, fresh angle on student life that should ring true for anyone who ever faced adulthood with let's-don't-be-too-hasty misgivings," AP's Moore wrote.

Moore wrote that one other thing sets "Somebodies" apart: Hadjii wrote all 10 half-hour episodes, directed several, serves as an executive producer, and stars. He does it all in Athens, where he attended the University of Georgia and, after graduation, taught and made his home.

His "Somebodies" project, though, began years earlier in a screenwriting class, where he showed Kohn, his professor, a spec script he had written for "Seinfeld."

"Impressed, Kohn encouraged him to write about his own experiences as a black man and native Southerner (he was born and raised in the coastal Georgia city of Brunswick)," Moore wrote.

"A film industry veteran, Kohn became Hadjii's mentor, then his producer," Moore continued. "Meanwhile, Hadjii was developing his characters and story, while refining a comedic voice that has the laser incisiveness of Chris Rock and the knowing graciousness of Garrison Keillor. (The clownish stereotypes of Tyler Perry? No comparison.)"

"I want to be funny, but I don't want to be a joke," Hadjii told Moore. "You want to talk about things that are relevant and have an impact. You want to deal with things that are important. You want to have heart."

Kohn told Moore: "There are no bad guys in what Hadjii writes. Scottie is trying to better himself, and a lot of people around him are trying to help them, even if they're crazier than he is."

Hadjii had first envisioned "Somebodies" as a TV series. But, as an interim step, the feature-film version (the one shown at Ebertfest) was shot in 2004, with Hadjii starring and directing. In 2006, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before being shown at Ebertfest.

Eventually BET picked up the series. During the delay before the series was shot, Hadjii wrote his first book, "Don't Let My Mama Read This," subtitled "A Southern-Fried Memoir." He signed copies at Ebertfest in 2008, and sold all that he brought.

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