Why the Black Sitcom Renaissance is Happening Now
The year 2022 has brought with it a much-needed resurgence of new Black sitcoms across networks and streaming services alike, with everything from Abbott Elementary to The Ms. Pat Show comforting viewers.
Black comedy is rooted in us being able to find laughter and joy in the darkest moments, and giving us something to cling to. Although it’s been great to see Black television as a whole expand and explore facets of the Black experience that hasn’t really been highlighted before on the small screen, many of these shows tend to lean more on the drama of everyday living, tackling important — but also depressing — themes and issues in explicit ways (abuse, addiction, police brutality). Fortunately, last year and this year has brought with it a much-needed resurgence of new Black sitcoms across networks and streaming services alike, with everything from Abbott Elementary to The Ms. Pat Show comforting viewers during an ongoing pandemic.
With the advent of streaming services, it’s been easy to revel in nostalgia and return to some of the greatest hits of Black sitcoms spanning decades. Netflix has many of the beloved UPN shows that defined the network throughout the ‘90s and 2000s, including Moesha, The Game, Sister Sister, Girlfriends, The Parkers, Half & Half, and One on One, as well as the first two seasons of Nickelodeon’s classic Kenan & Kel (all four seasons are on Paramount+). HBO Max has the iconic Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as well as Living Single, and Martin. And Hulu has The Bernie Mac Show and My Wife and Kids. But the return of these and other classic sitcoms comes at a time where new original Black tv shows are making headway, adding to the path their predecessors built for them while pushing the genre forward, all while finding a delicate and lighthearted balance between laughs and necessary social commentary.
This is most evident with ABC’s Abbott Elementary, a mockumentary-style workplace comedy following the staff of a Philadelphia public school. The union of humor and heart is the secret recipe for the success of Abbott Elementary, with Quinta Brunson’s Janine serving as its starry-eyed and optimistic center. Her heart is always in the right place as she tries to do her best by her students, while also trying to gain rapport with the school’s more seasoned teachers Barbara and Melissa (Sheryl Lee Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter, respectively), and navigate the daily mishandlings of Principal Coleman (Janelle James). In its 22 minutes, each episode always wraps up nicely despite the challenges Janine and other members of the school face — all while they’re dealing with their own personal problems, too.
What most notably separates Abbott from its contemporaries is its use of the mockumentary format. Often a type of film or TV series most would associate with TV shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, the mockumentary isn’t a format we’ve seen much when it comes to Black television.
“I think that has a lot to do with how we feel about the humor of Abbott,” Brunson said when asked if she knew she always wanted Abbott to be a mockumentary in a Deadline interview. “It’s one thing to laugh at teachers, it’s another thing to laugh with them. And I feel like having that mockumentary style gives our audience the ability to laugh with them, they are a part of the school.”
Since its debut, Abbott has become a refreshing critical and commercial hit, even helping ABC earn its best ratings since the finale of Modern Family. But, more importantly, it’s provided a nice reprieve from more serious shows, something that Brunson spoke to in an interview with AP, saying: “…I’ve seen multiple people say, ‘I turn off Euphoria and then watch Abbott for a palate cleanse.'”
Where shows like Abbott are employing a new formula with Black sitcoms, there are some that are relying on the tried-and-true family sitcom structure for their shows, but with a refreshing twist in its storytelling and humor, as is the case with The Ms. Pat Show.
The Ms. Pat Show, a BET+ original starring comedian Ms. Pat, follows a street-wise woman who finds herself living in middle America as an unlikely suburban mom juggling her comedy career. The series immediately draws viewers in with the inspiration it pulls from Ms. Pat's life, something she and co-creator showrunner Jordan E. Cooper use to ground authenticity.
"One of the things about putting this type of mom on TV for the first time in a sitcom is, I tell you, I'm a convicted felon," Ms. Pat said in a Hollywood Reporterinterview. "I made a lot of mistakes. And I think that's what people relate to."
But the true essence of the show is its exploration of complex families. Something that's explored deeply in season 2 is Pat having more open conversations with her family about abortion, insecurities about beauty standards, and being a survivor of sexual assault. It feels familiar: a blended family that isn't quite the picture-perfect white picket fence, but they love each other through the highs and lows. The Emmys-nominated season 1 episode "Baby Daddy Groundhog Day" is the best example of how the series effectively uses humor to tackle trauma, as a visit from her eldest children’s father results in her and family coping with the abusive and predatory dynamic that led to her trauma.
New original series aren’t just contributing to this renaissance, though. So are reboots and reimaginings of Black TV shows that have seemingly beat the reboot curse by growing with their audience and the current world. This is most notable with shows like The Wonder Years.
The Wonder Years (ABC) is inspired by the original ‘80s series of the same name, but it's far from a Black Wonder Years. The coming-of-age comedy follows the Black middle-class Williams family in Montgomery, AL, during the late ‘60s, told through the lens of 12-year-old Dean (Elisha "EJ" Williams) and narrated by his future older self (Don Cheadle). Many reboots/remakes live in the shadow of their predecessor, but that's not the case here.
The series tackles everything from first crushes to MLK’s assassination, balancing the show’s tone of levity and seriousness set at the height of the civil rights movement. But what makes it so appealing and serves as a blueprint for future reboots and reimaginings of old shows, is in its abandonment of a core part of the original: the sheltered suburban living of the Arnold family. Unlike the Arnolds, the Williams don’t — and can’t — live in a bubble. They’re affected not just by the microaggressions they may face at school or work, but by tragedies like MLK’s death. But what keeps them (and the show) grounded is the love they have for each other.
"Because we're setting it in [the 1960s when] obstacles and challenges and disadvantages that a Black middle-class family would have faced, we wanted to show it was the 'wonder years' for them because of the strength of the family unit," series creator Saladin K.Patterson said in an interview with USA Today. “Because of the love at the center of this family. ... We wanted it to be aspirational and positive but at the same time very much rooted in reality and grounded."
For these reasons, the reboot stands on its own merit, becoming a fan favorite and even winning a Peabody award like its predecessor.
Animated Black TV shows are also finding their lane in this renaissance, as is evident with The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder. Created and executive produced by Bruce W. Smith and Ralph Farquhar, The Proud Family originally graced screens in 2001 as the Disney Channel's first animated original series before ending in 2005. But the beloved Penny Proud and her family returned to Disney+ in February 2022 with a new vibrant art style, the same core humor, and heartwarming stories viewers loved from the original.
Less of a reboot and more a continuation of the original, The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder follows the adventures and misadventures of newly 14-year-old Penny Proud and her family, as they navigate modern life with hilarity and heart. The series was always at the forefront of social issues like racism, segregation, bullying, and classism, and the revival is no different, especially in regards to LGBTQ+ representation. There are fresh takes on characters like Penny's friend Michael Collins (EJ Johnson, who also identifies as gender non-conforming), who was coded as queer in the original, but is now gender non-conforming and openly gay, as well as the introduction of a gay mixed-race couple, the Leibowitz-Jenkins.
This fresh depiction of queerness and diverse lifestyles, along with an updated animation style, has made Louder and Prouder just as important as its predecessor, providing a necessary modern, family-friendly animated Black show during a time where they're needed now more than ever.
"We could only say so much back then; we had to dance around [queerness]. This time around, we were encouraged to simply be truthful in our storytelling," Smith said in an interview with The Walt Disney Company. "And in doing that, we were able to create these multi-layered characters who now speak their truths in very humorous, very deep ways."
This renaissance of quality Black sitcoms comes at a time where Black people have — and still are — dealing with so much, and having those harsh realities also seep into the fictional worlds they’re trying to find escape in. Although these comedies also touch on the hardships we face, their dedication to providing laughs takes precedence over everything else, serving as a form of resilience and resistance to a world that tries to tear us down each day.
Daric L. Cottingham (she/her) is a Black Southern queer multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. She is from Ruston, Louisiana, and grew up in Dallas, surrounded by streetwear, sneaker, and hip-hop culture. This environment fueled her interests, which lead to her passion for pop culture news. Daric loves analyzing the intersection of society and culture in a nuanced digestible way.