The glory days of quality black TV programming may have passed.
Granted, there have been a few recent bright lights, with Jill Scott (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency), Sherri Shepherd (Sherri) , Jada Pinkett-Smith (HawthoRNe) and Tyler Perry (House of Payne) all producing and starring in prominent shows, and The Cleveland Show has given Fox a bona-fide hit this fall. But we are still a long way away from the late 1980s and early 1990s when networks were going after black audiences with the same vigor they now do men 18 to 24.
A small but growing number of filmmakers, producers and writers are looking to the Web to make black shows on their own terms. Over the last year, a bevy of new shows have come online about the lives of all kinds of black people: gay and lesbian, rich and poor. Sites that focus on publishing black independent Web shows are cropping up as well, including Rowdy Orbit and BBTV (Better Black TV). This month, BET.com will premiere its first original Web series, Buppies, starring Tatyana Ali, directed by up-and-coming director Julian Breece and produced by Ali and newcomer Aaliyah Williams.
“No matter what kind of black show you had, nobody wanted it,” Breece said of trying to pitch Buppies to the networks a few years ago. “A lot of black people flock to the Web for content …. This is the perfect space to explore black stories that you don’t have the change to do in traditional media.”
Buppies dramatizes the story of Quinci, a young socialite who is having a very bad day. She and two girlfriends, all black professionals in industries like law and journalism, deal with relationship issues, sexuality, pregnancy and career identity. “There’s a lot of real situations, definitely done up in a fabulous, fantastical environment,” Breece said.
BET is using social-networking strategies to promote the program to make it a sticky destination for the black community. The marketing edge BET has may help Buppies stand out against the slew of other shows being independently distributed online. There are hundreds of original, scripted shows on the Web, and many of them have black characters, sometimes in lead roles, such as Jaleel White in Road to the Altar and Nichelle Nichols in The Cabonauts.
Here’s a sampling of original Web shows that are trying to fill the black drama void online:
The New 20s is the brainchild of filmmaker Tracy Taylor and premiered recently at the New York Television Festival. The series explores the lives of a number of black professionals transitioning from the 20s to their 30s. The show tells its story in a semi-realistic way, forgoing one-liners and slapstick bits and focusing on intimate conversations.
"The most important thing about the show is that it be real and relatable and dramatic and funny," Taylor said in an interview with Black Planet. "Who doesn't know a single dad or someone who is still struggling to get their career off the ground after 30? I just wanted to show real grown-ups dealing with adult issues."
Johnny B Homeless explores the comic adventures of a young man who migrates from couch to couch in New York City. It took the People’s Choice award at the New York TV festival, and Kenan Thompson, of Saturday Night Live, has joined the cast. Al Thompson, the series creator and star, also has another series, Lenox Avenue, currently screening at festivals.
Drama Queenz, which is about three gay men trying to make it as actors and singers, is just one of several shows aimed at the underserved black gay and lesbian markets online. After the cancellation of television’s marquee gay and lesbian shows over the years—Queer As Folk, The L Word and Noah’s Arc, the only all-black show—Web producers have moved in to fill the gap.
“I didn’t want to wait around for somebody to greenlight my dream,” said Drama Queenz creator, director and writer Dane Joseph, who funds the series out of his pocket. “It’s not a show about being gay or being black. Our show is more about our travails and trying to make it.”
With a small loyal following on YouTube, Drama Queenz starts its second season within the next month. But it is hardly the only black gay show online. Christopher Street, created by Dwight Allen O’Neal, similarly explores black gay men as urban performers. Another new and rising series, Anacostia, about the D.C. neighborhood of the same name, has a prominent gay storyline.
The Lovers and Friends Show, which has a substantial following on YouTube, focuses on a large ensemble of lesbian and bisexual women of color, most of them black. The series tries to be more than a show, aiming “to build an online community in which people can feel free to express themselves and their sexuality,” according to its Web site.
Originally pitched to HBO and Showtime, Kindred garnered some corporate interest, but its trio of producers and actresses decided to take it online after confronting the lack of demand for black shows on television. The show follows three black women—an artist, public servant and executive—as they deal with family, particularly their mothers, relationship problems, body issues, racial identity problems and career obstacles. Kindred, created by SistaPAC productions, premieres next month.
“After being involved in the industry, each of us over a decade really, we were concerned about what we’ve seen on television,” co-producer and star Ella Turenne said of the need for shows about black women “supporting each other.”
“These are real lives. It’s not The Office. Real life is dealing with the good the bad and the ugly,” said Jessica Hartley, co-producer and star.
While not specifically focused on “black” experiences, Stream, FEARNet’s sci-fi psychological thriller, stars one of the greatest black actresses today, Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg’s character experiences a confusing psychological event, blurring her ideas of time and space.
New series are popping up every month. Chick debuts this week on Rowdy Orbit, a site dedicated to distributing shows by and about people of color. The show depicts a world where everyday people become superheroes, with a focus on female empowerment. It’s just one of numerous Web shows targeting diverse segments within black and Latino communities that the new site Rowdy Orbit plans to showcase.
In this early stage, the writing and production values are uneven. But when you throw in social-networking possibilities online, the emergence of original Web programming can only be good news for black art and expression.
Aymar Jean Christian studies new media, film and television as a doctoral student in communication at the University of Pennsylvania.