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Is Nostalgia All That’s Next For The Black Sitcom?

Is Nostalgia All That's Next For The Black Sitcom?

Last month, dance choreographer and television producer Debbie Allen took to her Twitter account with a passionate plea. It was a call for the return of her popular late 80s, early 90s sitcom A Different World. Allen had just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the spinoff, originally conceived of as a vehicle for Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet, who later left the show after its first season. Despite Bonet’s departure, A Different World lived on for six seasons, serving as a fresh window into a facet of the black experience that had not been explored on American television before – the black collegiate experience.

“We need to recap this groundbreaking series that is so missed in TV today,” Allen wrote. “Can I get an amen?”

At the height of its popularity, A Different World was the second most-viewed black sitcom on television, tackling then taboo issues like HIV/AIDs, class relations amongst black people, blackface and the mammy image, the LA Riots, and the Gulf War. It was a new take on an old form, yes, but it was also following in a tradition that had began before The Cosby Show with programs in the late 60s and early 70s like The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son – shows that brought the funny but still, at times, attempted to take on “real issues” – issues that often acknowledged the not so swell parts about being black in America. And in the wake of Cosby and A Different World came a flood of black 90s sitcoms – The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Living Single, Family Matters, Martin, The Parent ‘Hood – over fifty or so shows on network channels that focused on everything from tight knit working class families, Beverly Hills millionaires, boy geniuses, high school music teachers, twins switched at birth, and housing project supers.

But then, by the end of the decade, something shifted. Sitcoms depicting black life began to gradually drop off the rosters of the Big Three networks (CBS, ABC, NBC) as the popularity of shows like Friends and reality television began to rise. According to The New York Times, between 1997 and 2001 the number of thriving black sitcoms dwindled from 15 to only 6. This included Girlfriends, The Bernie Mac Show, The Jamie Foxx Show, The Steve Harvey Show, Moesha, and its spinoff The Parkers. Today, there are just about the same number of black sitcoms in rotation, all of them on basic cable (like Tatyana Ali’s Love That Girl! and Ice Cube’s Are We There Yet?), and two of them the brainchildren of Tyler Perry (take that how you will).

It seems we’ve entered a period in which the black sitcom, in the most traditional sense, is entirely unsure of what it wants to be. The three-camera comedy as an entity is in a bit of a transition period – single-camera shows like 30 Rock, The Office, and Modern Family (all with one or two complimentary brown and black characters) have irrevocably changed the television comedy landscape. But for the black sitcom, a sense of nostalgia and creative ennui remains. TV Land’s recent announcement that it will begin airing reruns of The Cosby Show in primetime this year and the positive reaction to Allen’s tweets last month suggest a yearning for a black sitcom of the past.

Reed Between the Lines, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, was one of the many new shows picked up by BET, created as a sort of Facebook generation answer to that yearning. It centers on a middle-class black couple balancing their careers with parenthood. Comparisons to The Cosby Show were unavoidable – even the set was distinctly similar to the familiar layout of the Huxtables’ iconic brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. In an interview with Upscale magazine, former Cosby kid Warner acknowledged the similarities, saying: “None of us is Bill Cosby, so we’re not trying to recreate Cosby. What we are trying to recreate is the universality and the timelessness.”

Sometimes the wheel can be reinvented into something sleeker, smoother, hipper. But, for all intents and purposes, it is still a wheel, and Reed fails to add anything exciting or new to the family sitcom setup. Tracee Ellis Ross recently revealed that she was leaving the show to focus on new projects, while BET has announced plans to create a spinoff series chronicling the adventures of series regular Jacob Latimore at the fictional HBC Mt. Pleasant University. It’s history repeating itself, and rather than capturing a universal or timeless quality the stale premises and seem weirdly dated. They’re redundant when they mean to be revolutionary. But that revolution happened twenty years ago, with Clair and Cliff Huxtable and their five well-adjusted kids, with Whitley, Dwayne, and the Hillman class of ‘91.

Two years ago, Vibe suggested that with the dwindling amount of black sitcoms on network television, cable had to potential to “revolutionize the genre.” Today, one wonders if all cable has really done is keep the life support on. Still, there is some hope, and it is coming not from television but from the web, a new frontier. Issa Rae’s wildly popular Awkward Black Girl has flourished, embraced by audiences starved for a different perspective on the black sitcom. Along with it new online shows like  The Couple, Roomloverfriends, and The New 20s have gathered followings, and it seems that the web is providing a platform for these shows that wouldn’t have been available to them on TV.

But while the web has proven an exciting space for original content, one still wonders whether the same space will ever be made on network television. BET recently announced two upcoming sitcoms – The Real Husbands of Hollywood (based on the popular 2011 BET Awards sketch), and Second Generation Wayans, a scripted comedy described as “a cross between Entourage and How to Make it in America,” chronicling the efforts of Marlon and Damon Wayans’ nephews to make it in Hollywood on their own. The concepts are timely and intriguing, but it remains to be seen if anything interesting will actually be done with them.

The future of the black sitcom may be a decidedly hazy one at the moment, but the content being produced for the web gives at least some insight about what might be ahead. Perhaps it isn’t A Different World 2.0 that the genre needs, but certainly the sort of “groundbreaking” new perspectives that made Allen’s show so popular in the early 90s and are now making Rae’s Awkward Black Girl an icon for a new age.

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Digital Spy, Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Afropunk. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay

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Comments

Kassie

Check this out! Get this to Debbie Allen.
http://ianevans7.blogspot.com/2012/06/different-world-hillman-college-2012.html

blacktvexpert

why does the article's author think that an intact family as depicted in season 1 of reed between the lines is a stale concept? when over 70% of black children are born to single moms a two parent family seems downright revolutionary. and why she does s/he assume a young black man going to an HBCU is a stale concept? has anyone seen the pilot/script in order to judge the execution? aren't there different issues facing college students now than back in the 90's? why the rush to judgement all the time on black entertainment? there are few new concepts in the entertainment universe which means that execution is key. Is New Normal revolutionary in concept because the principal couple is gay? or is it just a "stale retread" of an extended family comedy that we've seen since the Brady Bunch? Why not applaud Ms. Allen and other creative and influential people for noticing gaps in the marketplace (shows featuring aspirational black teens and college-aged knowledge seekers) and trying to fill them instead of going in on her for having a not-quite-original thought?

lilkunta

bet said REED BTL is returnng for a 2nd season. This article says Tracee is leaving the show. So she isnt in season 2?

Darnell

WHO CUT THE CHEESE and lets cut the crap?! @ FIREBRAND, although you said Charles nailed it, you went exit stage left, 180 degrees away from his opinion. Remember Frank's Place?! NO! And that's exactly why it did not stay on the air… who was watching, was it entertaining and did it make money? And could you please define this "high-quality, original, and non-stereotypical shows" that you long for? I mean, who defines "quality" and does it pay the bills? And please, the word "stereotypical" should not be viewed as a negative connotation. "Typical" is merely a reflection of something or someone. It's not always a bad thing. Truth be told, the sitcom that best represented black life, one that made loads of money, was "quality" in many ways and received top weekly ratings was one you've probably never seen. Well, some negros, specifically those from the NAACP, were beating their chests and smelling their own upper lips and calling for "quality" programming. Consequently, the show YOU HAVE NOT SEEN was replaced by a loud, scheming and raggedy junk yard dealer, Fred Sanford and his 35 year old son who lived with him in the junkyard. That first black TV sitcom was Amos & Andy. Yep, 8 years after it's removal (because of crying black folks who didn't know what they were crying about nor what they would replace it with) the next black face on TV was foul mouth Red Fox and his dusty buddy, Grady. @ ALM, you keep insisting that "Hollywood" is in collusion to deny all these great black writers and their "quality" sitcoms from being seen, until they really need them. And then, when they do let them in the door, they use them up and kick them to the curb like a dirty dishrag. ALM, it's simply not that kind of party. If Hollywood has a model, it's the model of money – period. And they've been using black folks — from the beginning of time — in the oldest profession known to man, without shame nor guilt. Pimping ain't easy but it pays real good. So if black folks built it (well written "quality" programs that make money) they will come.

Nadi

I understand where you're coming from, Zeba Blay, but you might want to rethink how to word your argument. You complain a lot, give blanket statements, throw in a few metaphors, and source elsewhere without building a credible reputation or writing style for yourself. I feel like this is a high school periodical piece on one's favorite shows of yester years or a conversation I have with my girlfriends rather than one from an experienced journalist.

You complain, but you give no viable solution or even an afterthought of what can be done to bring those black shows back on television. The internet does not suffice in providing an appropriate medium if it doesn't lead to a more national platform. After all, how many Youtube sketch shows and the likes end up getting tv deals to be produced? I love ABG but the thought of it staying online only as a cult internet following is not where I want the show to go. I need more black people like me on my tv. What you failed to do is make a convincing argument why this should be to people who think otherwise and those who have the power to put that first step down in the process. This article is too stuck in the when and where, without giving any insight as to why and how. I feel like this topic is fascinating and damn important, but could have been explored more deeply and far more convincingly.

Darnell

Let me see what I learned from this ongoing conversation. First stop… the writer ZEBA BLAY hit us with this –> "and two of them the brainchildren of Tyler Perry (take that how you will)." Excuse me, it's not how "we" should take that, but what was SHE implying? I say… shit or get off the freakin' pot! Now, as usual, Charles Jordan un-apologetically said what has to be said. First, "these shows give us something to talk about." Being "positive" sounds real good, but many of our new "positive" writers and stories suffer from dismal writing, lack of conflict and the contagious disease that's spreading among black writers "pushing messages over story". Now that's (pushing message over story) the The Black Death, the writing style that destroying the minds of our writers, imo. Think about that… a "message" IS NOT entertaining! Anyway, moving forward. As Charles said, we should never put the burden on the audience. And this is show business not history 101. Now, there was no shame in Orville's game. He said the black community is ready for a black gay sitcom. I'd say NOT. I mean, really, what is a gay sitcom? Is that a genre; rom-com, drama… what? Now JMac said the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the current crop of black web series. A few friends get together, one being the "boss"and the brainchild, they come up with this great concept, but none of the friends have a lick of writing talent nor original ideas. They come in strong but their creative "talent" is insufficient funds. They wrote a check that their ass can't cover. Now BO didn't pull any punches either. When she said the following, I said AMEN –> "We always say we want groundbreaking and revolutionary… but when we get them, we reject them en masse and/or complain that they're not "groundbreaking". Yep, as Gil Scott-Heron said "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"… and if it was "we" would find something to complain about — THAT. Oh, that reminds me, speaking of revolutionaries, the commentator D.A pimped slapped our guest writer/contributor right upside her head with the following–> " Speaking of the revolutionary Tyler Perry (take that how you will, ZEBA BLAY ) The reason I mention Tyler Perry is because on this very blog there was a post about a foreign film whose synopsis was centered around a Jewish man finding the quintessential ghetto chick and OH…. OMG….! TYLER PERRY at least teaches us valuable lessons…… the last I checked people were verbally persecuting the man for allegedly "TEARING DOWN THE BLACK COMMUNITY" which I refuse to believe because ONLY people (black folks) can tear down themselves if they so choose.

cynthia nixon

If Black people would stop watching trashy reality shows like "Basketball Wives" and "Love and Hip Hop" then maybe the networks would produce more quality Black sitcoms. What incentive do they have to produce quality programs if all they need is a group of ignorant women to pull each other's weaves out in order to attract viewers????

Orville

Well I think the black community is ready for a black gay sitcom. I don't know if Shadow and Act readers know about Patrik Ian Polk's wonderful show Noah's Arc? Noah's Arc was a wonderful show it broke ground a few years ago and had two seasons. Noah's Arc deserved a bigger platform besides the gay channel MTV LOGO to reach a wider audience. After all, Modern Family, The New Normal ect. are gay shows but they aren't about black gays.

I wish someone would come up with a black gay sitcom that also somehow involved the black community. I think it would break new ground like Noah's Arc did a few years back.

JMac

Agree there is an unrealistic view (and undeserved hopefulness) regarding web series. Only some are groundbreaking in theory -the rest just seem to be Friends, Entourage, or Sex in the City clones – but the execution falls flat usually just after the first few episodes. It does seem as if a bunch of friends get together, brainstorm quickly, then only think ahead 2-3 episodes at a time … or maybe just one episode at a time. ABG was good/okay and had lots of potential when it started but now I don't know what the heck it's about. I keep watching anyway hoping she'll recapture the lost magic and push forward. I watched Roomieloverfriends and decided to reserve my opinion on that. Considering there's no comments on that post, methinks everybody is being nice – by not saying anything. Hopefully, our black writers will finally define their purpose and learn how to recapture the feelings those old shows inspired without retreading the past. And yes can we not just have relationship shows. People are more than just their sexual relationships and the pursuit of sexual relationships. Seems to be a problem across the board with web series regardless of race.

Charles Judson

I've been watching these new web shows and they themselves are still just as guilty of nostalgia. They may not be relying on old sitcoms and dramas as inspiration, they are leaning heavily on remember what we did last week? Remember that time you did that thing and we laughed? While some of these new web shows are more assured of what they want to be than they're TV counterparts, they're still demonstrating a lack of confidence in taking risks to actually be about, say or take a stand on anything. While the current crop of TV shows are awkwardly creating characters with overly predictable arcs, easy bake messages and tired plots, at least they have arcs and the characters aren't impenetrable ciphers who seem to lack an internal life. I watch some of these shows and I couldn't tell you what these current filmmakers care about or are interested in exploring. For others, they seem to stop right at they get up on that linI've been watching these new web shows and they themselves are still just as guilty of nostalgia. They may not be relying on old sitcoms and dramas as inspiration, they are leaning heavily on remember what we did last week? Remember that time you did that thing and we laughed? While some of these new web shows are more assured of what they want to be than they're TV counterparts, they're still demonstrating a lack of confidence in taking risks to actually be about, say or take a stand on anything. While the current crop of TV shows are awkwardly creating characters with overly predictable (and often poorly written) arcs, easy bake messages and tired plots, at least they have arcs and the characters aren't impenetrable ciphers who seem to lack an internal life. I watch some of these shows and I couldn't tell you what these current filmmakers care about or are interested in exploring. For others, they seem to stop right at they get up on that line. The first episode of THE NEW TWENTIES illustrates that. It's starts out promisingly about a young Black Woman trying to get her writing career started and find herself and jettisons that quickly to focus only on the relationships. In the episodes we learn more about her friends than we do her. Her wanting to be a writer isn't even a main plot line, it's introduced and it fades away. Hell, even the problems with her husband isn't the driver of the story. I can only watch THE COUPLE's vignettes so many times before my need for a plot and character development kicks in. They're like everyone else in a relationship. Cool. My friends do that quirky thing too. Cool. Now what are you setting up in episode 3 that I'm waiting to see pay off in episode 6? What is it about those characters you want me to learn and not just have it be a representation of couples everywhere. What is it they are struggling with? What's at stake? If I had to describe who those characters are, what they wanted, what their quirks were, I couldn't do it to save my life. They're ciphers. Non-stereotypes, but still ciphers. Give these characters meaning and a purpose beyond making us feel good to see someone like us, but don't seem to be struggling, or growing, or striving like us.

bo

Couple of things. First, it's interesting that shows like The Office and Modern Family are mentioned as those that "changed the television comedy landscape," especially since, if the point is that they're somehow "groundbreaking," they're really not. The only difference between a Modern Family (which owes a heavy stylistic debt to both the British Office, and even further back to the film This is Spinal Tap) and a 3-camera sitcom is that Modern Family cheats by having their characters express their thoughts and feelings directly to the camera, as opposed to having the characters tell each other how they feel in a 3-camera show. It's a great show, but otherwise, it's a standard sitcom dressed up in the form of a stylized "documentary" format. Another thing, for all of the crying about the need for "groundbreaking" TV, the fact is that if this stuff is put on the air (awesome, yet ANOTHER webseries about a black relationships!), will people watch? We always say we want "groundbreaking" and "revolutionary" new shows and films, but when we get them, we reject them en masse and/or complain that they're not "groundbreaking" or "revolutionary" enough. Not to mention, these new "groundbreaking" and "revolutionary" ideas cost money, and also have to appeal to advertisers, who are, like it or not, risk-averse and will stick with familiar ideas and concepts. Sometimes there's comfort in the familiar, and I'm not just talking about in terms of the viewing audience.

ALM

Is "Love That Girl" returning? The positive side of me says that eventually the audience's thirst for quality content will collide with the right writers, directors, and producers. Then we will see the return of diverse, quality sitcoms. The funny thing is, I remember in the 1990's that the NAACP STAYED on the networks about the lack of diversity. There would be an article in Ebony or Jet around this time of year when new seasons premiered in which the NAACP kept a tally of diversity on the major networks. In response, a lot of new shows were created. At some point, the NAACP either stopped caring or had to devote their time to something else, and then we saw a major decline in the amount of quality sitcoms.

D.A.

I honestly think that there is a serious disregard for hope among persons of color (in particular Black Americans), when there was something as revolutionary as The Cosby Show, we put all of our proverbial eggs in that basket hoping it would last forever. When there was the realization that it would come to a formal end, there was the focus on another project, and another project, and then another. But when it all seems like it's coming to an end we lose all faith in the 'genre' as a whole, and we think since the golden era is gone, 'where do we go from here', or 'will there ever be another golden era?' The lack of confidence in the ability of a few to make something happen is more redundant than seeing an episode of 'Reed Between The Lines.' It's obvious in how potential viewers have written the show off (including Tyler Perry's works) like it could never be what was once great…….. these efforts were never given a chance. The reason I mention Tyler Perry is because on this very blog there was a post about a foreign film whose synopsis was centered around a Jewish man finding the quintessential ghetto chick and OH, OMG, now TYLER PERRY at least teaches us valuable lessons…… the last I checked people were verbally persecuting the man for allegedly 'TEARING DOWN THE BLACK COMMUNITY" (Which I refuse to believe because only people can tear down themselves if they so choose). I think it is commendable that there are those like Issa Rae taking full advantage of a prominent resource in our 'Age of Information,' but it should also be commendable that there are shows like 'Reed Between The Lines' and 'The Game' (last I checked, it was only a matter of timing that had Tracee Ellis Ross absent from the 2nd season, I think people read into that a little too deep!!!!)

Agnes

Wow ,wonderfully written. Let the conversation continue and set the ball rolling for black sitcom comeback on network TV.The audience is there.Definatelyviable businesswise or is it?

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