As famed sociologist Hugh Mackay once said: “Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational.” That quote is a tidy summation of Ava DuVernay’s new anthology series “Cherish the Day,” which premieres February 11 on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
It relies on one of the oldest and most basic romantic tropes: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy regains girl. Details vary, but those are the major narrative beats.
What’s different about this one is that it’s not some fanciful fairytale, but rather a realistic, intuitive and sympathetic observation of a relationship as it evolves over several years, with characters that are fully realized, complex creatures.
Ultimately, its message seems to be that romantic love is far more complicated than anything depicted in the typical Hollywood romcom.
“Cherish the Day” chronicles the evolving relationship of one couple, with each episode spanning a single day in their lives. This season is led by Xosha Roquemore as Gently James, and Alano Miller as Evan Fisher. Set in Los Angeles, the full chapter spans five years, and unfolds over eight episodes. The first four were made available to press.
Evan meets Gently during an altercation at their local library, and they proceed to fall madly in love with each other. Theirs is primarily a meeting of the minds — our most erotic organs. A sexual attraction is certainly present between them, but DuVernay handles it gently, with patience. It’s a series more interested with being delicate and true to life.
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Around the way girl and thrift store shopper Gently James is a free spirit who doesn’t trust easily, and is therefore guarded. She hides behind a seeming confidence and strength — as well as a stubbornness — which may initially be off-putting. But it quickly becomes clear that behind the facade lies certain fears and insecurities. She’s afraid to be vulnerable, but she’s undeniably drawn to Evan.
Straightlaced Evan Fisher is an all-around good guy from an upper-crust family who is maybe a little too sweet for his own good. He’s honest, earnest, and does everything by the book. He went to Stanford University, has a great job, drives a Tesla, and typically dates Ivy League-educated women from similar backgrounds. He’s a family man with very traditional values, who knows what he wants: Gently James. And he’s willing to work for it.
At first, it would seem that there’s plenty standing between each person’s ideal version of romantic bliss, and that these two who have little in common shouldn’t dare traverse any path towards romance. Alas, one of nature’s cruel jokes states that many of us will find ourselves attracted to people who are very much unlike who we are. If there is a single theme to the series, it would be that the tension of opposites produces the passion that sustains, deepens and enlivens relationships.
This first season of “Cherish the Day” suggests that it would be far simpler and a lot less messy if we were drawn to those whose personalities are more like our own, but that wouldn’t be as exciting. Those differences that can seem so problematic initially may actually be the very things that add spice to any relationship; the adventure, risk, challenge, and intensity of it all.
Inevitably, they start to rub off on each other; Evan becomes less of a square, and Gently starts to open up to him. If there’s one thing they both have in common, it’s their love of the arts — watch them bond over Evan’s eclectic record collection, which includes everything from a Zimbabwean revolutionary rock band, to native American punk rockers.
There is a wonderful scene in the second episode, set in Evan’s apartment, as the pair basks in the atmosphere, and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” croons in the background; both Evan and Gently sitting silently apart. He gazes at her, while her eyes wander, eventually finding his. They stare at one another, but each seems to be more of an inquiry than a confirmation. It’s a beautiful, dialogue-free scene that should resonate with anyone who’s ever found themselves falling in love.
“Cherish” doesn’t tell an especially remarkable story, but that’s kind of the point. These are two people we are meant to instantly recognize, because they are us. The series takes a very universal concept — love — and strips it down to its most basic elements. What does it mean? What does it look like, and what does it take to get there?
The painful truth about love, as considered by “Cherish,” is that the real work of a relationship includes all the boring, dreary, unsexy stuff that often isn’t seen or appreciated. It’s equal parts Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy of films (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight”), and Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything” — both among the greatest modern movie romances.
There’s even a “Say Anything”-esque moment, except in a reversal of roles. Gently is Lloyd Dobler to Evan’s Diane Court. In that moment, which unfolds in the fourth episode, one can almost hear Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” accentuating the scene, except Gently isn’t carrying a boombox.
Stories like this often favor the man’s POV, relegating the female lead to the more reductive, diminutive designation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character, but Roquemore’s Gently has her own goals independent of Miller’s Evan. She isn’t the one-dimensional female character who exists only in support of the happiness of the male protagonist, and does have to deal with many complex issues of her own. Black women characters are rarely written with this much depth and complexity.
If there is a weakness to the series, it’s an inescapable predictability. It’s the story of how one relationship begins and evolves, so dramatic shifts are expected. It has to derive its conflict from somewhere. And if there’s one thing predictable about romance, it’s how unpredictable it can be. To expound would be to spoil the series, but there are plotlines that are a bit too on-the-nose, so much that one wonders if far more interesting narrative choices could have been made.
But what makes DuVernay’s series worth seeing is the writer’s care in developing characters and situations of infinitely greater credibility than those which litter the majority of today’s screen romances with black leads.
As played by the talented Miller, Evan’s sincerity and uncomplicated devotion to Gently ring entirely true; and the same goes for the series’ portrayal of the two-way tenderness between Gently and her adoptive father (who is not quite what he seems on the surface); a mutual admiration made beautifully tangible by Roquemore and Michael Beach.
The legendary Cicely Tyson joins them as Miss Luma Lee Langston, a renowned star of stage and screen of decades past, who also happens to be Gently’s best friend. Additional cast members in recurring roles include Anne-Marie Johnson (as Evan’s mother who disapproves of his relationship with Gently), and Kellee Stewart (as Ellene, Evan’s well-bred, religious sister).
The core duo, however, is what creates the charm of the show. Roquemore and Miller’s chemistry is undeniable, and they embody their characters believably. “Cherish the Day” is a sweet, sexy, realistic depiction of a modern romance, led by wonderfully natural performances.
“Cherish the Day” debuts on Tuesday, February 11 on OWN at 10 p.m., followed by a second night on February 12 at 8 p.m.