Harlem, which could be viewed as Amazon’s answer to the “four fierce girlfriends in New York City” television trope, is an entertaining foray into the world of Harlem, complex relationships, career challenges and the growing pains of living in a storied neighborhood being ravaged by gentrification.
Harlem stars Meagan Good as Camille, an adjunct professor at Columbia University, living in a beautiful rent-controlled apartment, who is navigating the difficult process of landing a tenure-track job at prestigious Columbia University while figuring out a love life that goes from nil to a triangle in record time. Her close circle of friends includes Tye (Jerrie Johnson), a successful Queer tech entrepreneur who has risen to fame by developing an app that brings LGBTQ people of color together. Caribbean-American Quinn (Grace Byers) is an aspiring fashion designer with a boutique in Harlem bankrolled by her wealthy and brash mother Patricia, played by sitcom royal Jasmine Guy ((A Different World, The Quad, Dead Like Me).
Angi (Shoniqua Shadai) is an aspiring free-thinking singer, who lives on Quinn’s sofa, while she figures out how to earn a living as a singer in the Big Apple without selling her soul. Tyler Lepley (P-Valley, The Have and the Have Nots) plays the character of Ian, Camille’s lost love, Robert Ri’chard (The Steve Harvey Show, Chocolate City) stars as Shawn, the stripper with a heart who falls for Quinn and Academy Award-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg is perfectly cast as the no-nonsense newly appointed Academic Chair Dr. Elise Pruitt,who shakes up Camille and the department.
Add to the mix fabulous outfits, hair and make-up, beautifully decorated apartments, drinks and dining in fine establishments and messy relationships with partners and parents and you’ve got the makings of a hit.
Unlike some “girlfriends” series which struggle to convince viewers of a real friendship, the women of Harlem have great chemistry and offer performances that are thoughtful and provocative, particularly towards the end of the season. There are some obvious missteps, like the constant misuse of academic titles, academic language and dialogue that suggests the writers know very little about how academia works or the tenure process, so they should hire a consultant and get it right, particularly because many of the women in their desired demographic are Black women academics.
The decision to have Guy speak in a Jamaican accent, which sounds harsh and horrible, distracts from Guy’s otherwise impeccable performance. Opening up the series by privileging a tribe of Asian women as the referential point of a show about Harlem is highly problematic, especially when there are some Bantu tribes and Southern African tribes with similar practices that could have served as a reference. It’s hard to take creators seriously when they constantly talk about fighting to “tell Black stories” and then open up a series about four Black women in Harlem referencing an Asian tribe, as opposed to the incredible Black women of the Harlem Renaissance era, which would make better sense. I literally thought there was a glitch in the programming code until I realized it was Meagan Good’s voice in the narration.
Those glaring issues notwithstanding, the show still works because it is a fun show. Harlem provides laugh-out-loud moments (Get Out as a musical and the Black friends getting tossed out of a yoga class by a white woman for using the “N” word). Harlem also manages to address serious issues like gentrification, homophobia, sexism, interracial dating, healthcare inequities, microaggressions and the weight and precariousness of being a dynamic Black woman in America, regardless of Diasporic, sexual identity, professional or economic status, without sounding preachy or dogmatic.
Harlem is refreshing because it includes an openly Queer woman as central to the friendship group, which is not that unusual in the real Black girlfriends world but for some reason is an anomaly in the film and tv world. Queer and straight people can actually have strong friendships and Harlem shows how it’s done. Add veteran actress Tamara Tunie (Law & Order:SVU, The Red Road, Better Call Saul), and it’s easy to see why this television show has staying power.
While Harlem has been compared by some reviewers to “Sex and the City,” whose next installment, “And Just Like That” is returning to the small screen next week, Harlem clearly stands on the shoulders of iconic tv series Living Single and Girlfriends, just as Tracy Oliver, Harlem‘s creator, stands on the shoulders of executive producers and creators Yvette Lee Bowser (Run the World, Dear White People, Black-ish) and Mara Brock Akil (The Game, Being Mary Jane, Black Lightning, Love Is). Oliver, who starred as Nina in Issa Rae’s classic web series, “The Misadventures of An Awkward Black Girl,” wrote the hit movie Girls Trip, fan favorite Little and created the BET+ hit First Wives Club. To say Oliver is having a grand moment in entertainment is an understatement. Like Bowser, who recently executive produced Leigh Davenport’s show,“Run the World” (STARZ) and Akil, Oliver writes women extremely well and is able to weave together stories that are as funny as they are provocative in a way that is endearing, maddening, uplifting and poignant separately and simultaneously.
As Oliver continues to sharpen her pen as a writer and creator and gain more life experience, the narrative characteristics of her television shows will improve. The direction of the later episodes is particularly strong, due to the talents of women directors Neema Barnette (Queen Sugar, The Equalizer, Genius, Raising Dion) and Linda Mendoza (Girlfriends, Ugly Betty, Brooklyn Nine-Nine). Like many television shows, the first couple of episodes are pretty clunky, but they get infinitely better as the season progresses, so hang in there and allow the women of Harlem to capture your imagination.
With writers like Oliver and Stacey Muhammad (Queen Sugar, First Wives Club), a dope soundtrack, a talented cast, strong direction and executive producers like Pharrell Williams and Amy Poehler at the ready, Harlem is poised to be a show worth watching for many seasons to come.
This article was written by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., founder & editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire. Dr. Burton teaches film and media and is co-director of the Film and Media Management concentration at Emory University in Atlanta. Follow Nsenga on Twitter @Ntellectual.