The Rise And Fall And Rise Of Black Television

By Terryn Hall

For black millennial women, the opening scenes of Living Single bring back a rush of memories. “We are Living (hey) Single,” the chorus goes, “In a ’90s kinda world, I’m glad I’ve got my girls!” It then cuts to a silhouette of a dancer who could have been one of the Fly Girls from In Living Color. Her mushroom-cut bob whips effortlessly as she pumps against the backdrop of a Brooklyn that has long since given way to gentrification. This is the Brooklyn of Khadijah, Regine, Synclaire, and Maxine, four friends who happen to be black and in their late twenties, trying to figure out life while navigating New York.

Most black women can tell you which character they are — lawyers and strong-willed types tend to align with Maxine, Attorney-at-Law (or the Maverick, as she’s known). Those with hearts of gold are Synclaire, glamorous types flock to Regine, and smart no-nonsense writers claim Khadijah as their patron saint. There were those of us who wanted Maxine’s box braided bob with an undercut, or who yearned for the broke-girl glamour that Regine created for herself out of thin air. We wished we had the innocence of Synclaire. We wanted to start our own Flavor magazine, because if Khadijah could do it, why not us?

In its time, Living Single normalized black womanhood in a way that was both fresh and familiar, which is why Issa Rae’s new HBO show Insecure is exciting — it has the opportunity to do the same for a new generation of women.

Insecure premiered on October 9, but it follows in a long tradition of black television that explores black life in a non-stereotypical fashion. And the show doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Rae’s work comes at a time when black shows and movies are proliferating at a rate that hasn’t been seen since the black television boom of the ’90s. Rae and Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in particular, is a complementary show to Insecure in the way that Living Single and Martin paired in the ’90s. Each brings its own perspective on what it means to be young and black in America.

The opening credits of Insecure put a tight focus on areas of L.A. that are not usually seen on TV or in film — a Slauson street sign, low slung houses, the beauty supply store. This is not Hollywood. Instead, the opening credits lay out unapologetically the communities where black folk in the City of Angels live and work every day. And the music — Kendrick Lamar’s anthemic “Alright” — is a nod to the perseverance of these places, telling the audience that even though they are overlooked and abandoned by politicians and investors, they continue to find ways to thrive and exist.

Insecure is special for a number of reasons: What other show stars two darker-skinned women as lead characters whose existence isn’t questioned, but validated? Where else do you see women who are not 5'3 and size two finding love? What other show has a woman lead with naturally kinky hair that doesn’t cascade to the middle of her back? As a 31-year-old black woman who has yet to figure out how she’ll balance life, love, and everything in between, Insecure is a revelation. Finally! A show with, for lack of a better word, “regular” black people, living their lives. Insecure gives space for a new generation of women of color to be comfortable in themselves, in the same way that Living Single did for kids growing up in the ‘90s.

In 2014, NPR’s Kat Chow compiled a list of family sitcoms that starred families of color. The ’90s were flush with such programs — according to her list, at least 17 shows ran in the ’90s that showed black family life, including staples like The Cosby Show, A Different World, Roc, Moesha, and Parent Hood. That number gets pushed closer to 25 when non-family shows and shows from the now-defunct UPN and WB networks are included, like the Jamie Foxx Show, Homeboys in Outer Space, The Wayans Brothers, In Living Color, Living Single, Martin, and New York Undercover.

In the new millennium, the representation of black women (and POC in general) on television was few and far between. Of course, we all know Girlfriends and then Scandal. The frenzy that met Olivia Pope — I lived in D.C. when the show premiered — was overwhelming. We were having Scandal parties and buying cream-colored ponchos and drinking wine and eating popcorn every Thursday. That’s how hungry viewers like me were able to see themselves on the small screen. Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil softened the ground for the current slate of black and brown shows currently on television, including Rae’s Insecure. But it came after years of drought.

The causes of this boom and bust of black television can be attributed to a number of factors. Slate’s Aisha Harris tells The Establishment about the rise of black TV in the ’80s and ‘90s:

“I think it was the combination of a lot of different things — The Cosby Show, obviously. But you also had something like the Black Pack, the inner circle of black comedians in the ’80s that included Eddie Murphy, Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Arsenio Hall, and Paul Mooney — these guys were creating a lot of stuff together (and separately) in the late ’80s that trickled into the ‘90s.”

She points out that network reshuffling in the late ’90s and early 2000s put a pinch on black programming.

“Some major network changes happened, perhaps most notably, when the WB and UPN merged to become the CW, and dramatically shifted the target audience of each of those networks from inclusion of ‘urban’ fare to more focus on mainstream white teen/YA/family fare. The shows that made it in that transition were the likes of Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven; the few black shows that did make it didn’t last more than one or two seasons more once they moved to the CW.”

As someone who watched shows on UPN and the WB, this transition felt abrupt. Even though viewers like myself didn’t have insider knowledge about the workings of network television politics, the suspicion that our viewership wasn’t valued loomed.

Those of us who remember the golden era when Living Single and Martin made us laugh are the ones creating the diverse shows cropping up today. Insecure’s Rae said this herself in her recent Vogue interview when she revealed “ . . . all those shows shaped me. Living Single, Martin. All of those shows I wanted to write for in some way.”

The advent of social media platforms — YouTube specifically, in Rae’s case — meant that she and others didn’t have to wait for network TV to help them tell the stories that mattered to them. Young people coming up behind Rae, Glover, Fresh off the Boat’s Eddie Huang, and the others contributing to this current surplus of shows will see this show and know that their lives are worthy of examination.

As for me, Insecure is exciting because it reflects my reality . . . in all its awkward and painful and hilarious glory.

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