Where Black TV used to only be a handful of places, now it’s everywhere and harder than ever to keep up with — and that’s a good thing.
Not too long ago the bulk of Black TV shows could essentially be found on a handful of networks. In the 1990s and early 2000s, those networks were pretty much FOX, The WB, and UPN. In Living Color, The Jamie Foxx Show, Moesha, and Girlfriends are among the beloved classics from those networks who largely built their brands on offering Black content to one of television’s most underserved demographic before later abandoning them. Legacy networks like NBC and ABC even scored a few big hits like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and My Wife and Kids. Today, Black TV is exploding everywhere. HBO, Starz, OWN, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+ — from traditional networks to streamers, Black shows are thriving in silos and expanding the idea of what Black TV can be.
Premium TV Networks
Entering the ’20s, there aren’t only new Black television shows cropping up but contemporary classics coming to an end, too, particularly on prestige TV networks like HBO and Starz. Take Insecure, Issa Rae’s HBO show that wrapped up its final season last night, for instance. What started with Rae shooting her shot back in 2011 via YouTube with her web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, has evolved into a cultural phenomenon, with Insecure blending comedy and drama to tell a relatable story of a college-educated Black woman trying to find her way personally and professionally. Since its debut in 2016, Insecure hasn’t only led to the creation of similar shows (BET’s Twenties, Starz’s Run the World, and Amazon Prime Video’s Harlem) but Rae being able to expand her HBO catalog with more of her own shows (Rap Sh*t) and those that she’s executive producing (A Black Woman’s Sketch Show).
Although Starz’s Power came to an end last year, the franchise has built out an entire universe since its debut back in 2014. Centered around Omari Hardwick’s Ghost, a drug kingpin who desires to get out of the game but can’t, the show explored themes like love, morality, and power in a way that resonated strongly with its largely nonwhite audience, so much so that creator 50 Cent has built his own “Power Universe.” Now, there are two spinoff series (a third one, Power Book IV: Force, will make its debut in February 2022), Power Book II: Ghost and Power Book III: Raising Kanan, that offer a deeper dive into some of the series’ most beloved characters. (Along with his Power franchise, 50 also has BMF, which tells the story of the notorious Black Mafia Family, as well as an upcoming series with Snoop Dogg centered around the West Coast rapper’s murder trial, for Starz.) Aside from 50’s Power franchise and other projects, Starz also has Run the World, a comedy series set in Harlem that focuses on a group of girlfriends trying to balance their relationships and careers.
Not as well known as fellow premium TV networks like HBO and Starz, EPIX also deserves to be acknowledged for Godfather of Harlem. Starring Forest Whitaker as notorious drug lord Bumpy Johnson, Godfather has offered a complex view of Black history throughout its two seasons (it premiered in 2019 and returned for its second season this year), as Bumpy battles against the Italian mob to regain control of Harlem.
Local networks like ABC and Fox have also debuted notable Black shows this year with Queens and Our Kind of People, respectively. Making its debut in October, Queens is a musical drama that tells the story of four women of color reviving their careers as rappers in their ’40s. With an all-star cast including Eve, Brandy, and Naturi Naughton — who all had actual music careers in the ’90s — the series tackles issues like motherhood, betrayal, and sexuality, separating itself from both past and present fictional rap-centric shows that are often focused on male characters and their stories.
Our Kind of People is a classic drama narrative set in Oak Bluffs, the historic upscale Black enclave in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where a long-lost child of a wealthy family comes to stake her claim. Created by Karin Gist, backed by Lee Daniels, and starring everyone from Yaya DaCosta and Lance Gross to the legendary Debbi Morgan and Morris Chestnut, Our Kind of People is “Black Excellence” on overload as it explores themes of race and class in America.
The Popular Streamers
HBO Max, Apple TV+, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video have also contributed to the rise of Black content, especially on streaming platforms. This year saw HBO Max not only premiere That Damn Michael Che — a romantic comedy series with universal appeal even as it speaks specifically to Black people on the Barack Obama spectrum of Black respectability — but pick up the second season of South Side, a comedy about two friends trying to find success while working at a rent-to-own shop, that has become a favorite for its slyly satirical humor.
Both Apple TV+ and Netflix saw the debut of sports-centric shows inspired by real-life athletes: Kevin Durant’s Swagger and Colin Kaepernick’s Colin in Black and White, respectively. Inspired by Durant’s own Amateur Athletic Union (AAU)
experiences in his native DMV where the show is set, Swagger uses basketball to center Black youth as they tackle tough issues like social media pressure, the game’s competitiveness, single motherhood, and young love. A limited series co-created with Ava DuVernay, Colin in Black and White offers a compelling dramatization of Kaepernick’s early life as a young Black man and athlete raised by white parents, and his transformation from an NFL star to activist who sacrificed his career by kneeling against racial injustice.
As for Amazon Prime Video, the platform has had an unexpected hit series with Harlem, which is about a tight sister circle led by Meagan Good’s Camille, as they all navigate love and their careers in the historic NYC neighborhood. Where Harlem builds off from its predecessors (Girlfriends, Insecure) and contemporaries (Run the World) isn’t just in how entangled the lives of the friends are, but in redefining the typical character archetypes of shows like this. For example, the sister circle includes an openly queer woman (Jerrie Johnson’s Tye) who also happens to be the creator of a successful queer dating app. That Harlem comes on the heels of Starz’s Run The World is just incredible, and hopefully signals how TV will continue to offer different representations of Black woman as Insecure comes to a close.
Black TV Networks and Streamers
From Black TV networks like OWN to streamers like AllBlk (formerly Urban Movie Channel) and BET+, these platforms have offered up some of the years most popular Black shows. Although it premiered back in 2016, OWN’s Queen Sugar really resonated with viewers this year as creator DuVernay used the fifth and sixth seasons of the series to confront real life issues — from COVID-19 to George Floyd’s death — and how they were affecting the fictional Bordelon family. Although not as popular as Queen Sugar, OWN also has Tarell Alvin McCraney’s (the playwright whose work inspired the Oscar-winning film Moonlight) David Makes Man, which dropped its second season this year. A coming-of-age drama, the second season finds main characters and brothers David and JG as adults trying to lead normal lives after growing up rough in the greater Miami Liberty City area with a drug-addicted mother. How the season tackles grown men reconciling with childhood trauma — notably through professional counseling sessions — shows how important a series like David Makes Man is.
AllBlk has served up some juicy shows like the tense Monogamy and comedic Stuck With You, both of which made their returns this year. The shows both deal with unconventional marriages: Stuck With You is about a seemingly devoted Hollywood couple that has an open marriage, while Monogamy is a drama where married couples have undergone “swap therapy” to save (or break) their marriages, with darker storylines emerging in the process. Although Monogamy is Allblk’s most popular program, that hasn’t stopped the platform from offering new shows, including the recently-released Lace, which is a messier and more sexual Scandal without the government connect.
While BET has largely hitched its content wagon to Tyler Perry (most notably Sistas and The Oval) and offering very little non-Perry fare like Games People Play, BET+ has shown a willingness to take more risks, as is evident with new shows like Sacrifice (a dark drama where Paula Patton portrays a fixer), All The Queens Men (a steamy drama where reality star veteran Eva Marcile is the owner of a male strip club), and The Ms. Pat Show (a controversial sitcom created by Lee Daniels that tells the story of a Black woman impregnated by a grown man as a girl who becomes a drug and, later, a comedian).
Still, it’s already beloved comedic shows like First Wives Club (starring Jill Scott, Ryan Bathe, and Michelle Buteau) and the Will Packer-produced Bigger (which debuted in 2019) that stand out most. In addition to presenting varied perspectives of Black people, these shows have helped BET+ expand how Black comedies can look.
In the age of streaming, Black television has become a revolving door of stories, with more and more intriguing shows stepping up each season. Where Black TV used to only be a handful of places, now it’s everywhere and harder than ever to keep up with — and that’s a good thing.
Banner Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
TV put a move on Ronda Racha Penrice’s heart around age three and never let go. As a grown-up, the Chicago native with deep Mississippi roots and ATL zip code, has covered TV for a number of publications including EBONY, OkayAfrica, theGrio, The Root, ESSENCE, NBC Think, Zora, and Upscale. Her book, Black American History For Dummies, features an entire Black TV chapter. Plus, she’s the editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter, a book of essays exploring the iconic HBO show as it turns 20, out January 25, 2022.