It’s a debate that will reel in just about any Black person, and certainly any Black millennial who came up on TV during the 1990’s Black TV Renaissance: what are the best black TV shows ever?
Well, that’s a really big question to ask, and it’s almost impossible to answer given the differences between sitcoms, comedies, dramas, reality shows and limited series. One can make a strong argument for any of about 10 different Black sitcoms, but then should that include shows like Insecure, which were amazing, but less sitcom and more drama with some comedy sprinkled in? Then you have people who loved The Wire, but was May I Destroy You a much more artfully done show as a limited series? And what if I wanted to throw in Ru Paul’s Drag Race, it may be the most critically acclaimed show of them all!
So given the great diversity in Black TV, let’s break the conversation down a little bit, starting with the best Black TV sitcoms. And we specifically mean situational comedies. Not shows that bring you in with the idea of humor but then become this prolonged soap opera with mabe a joke or two per episode. Thus, this list is ranking shows that come more from The Wayans Bros. category and less so Insecure or The Game. It won’t even include something like Chappelle’s Show, which is technically not a sitcom but instead a variety show.
So without further ado, we bring you the top 5 black TV sitcoms ever:
5. Black-ish (2014)
So I know a lot of Black people like to be against Black-ish, and perhaps more specifically, Kenya Barris, but this show is massively underrated as a true Black sitcom. What they are doing on this show is borderline genius. Not only do you have some of the best comedic Black actors of our time in Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, but the dives into extremely controversial topics, explores present-day black issues across generations, and they always, always, always focus on the comedy. Yeah, they had that one little stint when Dre and Rainbow were going through a rough patch, but that was maybe 3 or 4 episodes long? Outside of that, they’ve blanketed their social comments in funny, and you can’t help but laugh at Dre’s absurdness, Rainbow’s quirkiness, Ruby’s audaciousness, or Jr.’s foolishness. Perhaps, I’m being naive, and this show will never go down as the quintessential black comedy it is, just because it has this stigma of being something that is “for white people”. But that’s an extremely unfair characterization, and I think it will stand the test of time as the next generation gets caught up on the show and wonders why we black millennials didn’t celebrate it properly in it’s time.
4. The Jeffersons (1975)
For those of you that don’t know the history of Black television in America, you probably don’t fully grasp the excellence it would have required for a Black TV show to not just be on air for 11 seasons, but to do so as a show that launched in the 70s. The 70s were a death nail for Black television. In coordination with the Civil Rights movement, the 60’s had brought a newfound focus on Black TV from the major broadcasters, but following the assassinations of Dr. King and JFK, along with the rising war in Vietnam, the TV executives didn’t feel the pressure to keep up with Black audiences and completely abandoned it at the turn of the decade. But fortunately, America couldn’t deny the genius of the show’s leading actor and actress. Thus, it was their character debut on another show, All in the Family, that led to a resounding reception from the American TV-viewing audience, which led to their character spin-off with The Jeffersons, based on that couple moving out of the neighborhood they resided in, and into their new Upper East Side apartment. While this show was lauded for its look into Black life, ability to cross-racial lines, and many plots on class, at the end of the day, it was the hilarious relationship between Louise (aka “Weezy) and George Jefferson, played by Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley, that really separated show. While we’ll certainly talk about another fictional, Black TV couple, this was probably the first one on TV that truly allowed Black viewers to see the inner-workings of Black marriage on national television.
3. Martin (1992)
Well, not many shows get celebrated 30 years after they came on TV, and 25 years since their last episode, but it’s no surprise that BET decided to bring back the cast from Martin to do just that in the latter part of 2022–it was just that impactful of a show. Up until 1992, while there had been several great Black TV shows, none of the best Black TV shows, at least since maybe Sanford & Son in 1992 with Redd Foxx, had premiered with the reverence that a comedian like Martin Lawrence automatically brought to the table. From playing multiple characters and having an all-out rivalry between a Black man and woman, to having no qualms about displaying the sexual energy between a man and his woman while having no regard as to who or what they made fun of, Martin was well ahead of his time. So many of their bits would have been viral moments on YouTube if it came out 20 years later. And the casting was amazing. Everybody knew their role, and it gave you the feeling that this was just one of those shows where it only works because those specific actors were the ones they chose. While Martin had its dramatic moments here and there, and it was more or less pure comedy, with Martin getting in trouble every episode. He may have been of the first leading Black protagonist that we loved to hate but at the same time rooted for him to win. Every Black person of the 90s was imitating this guy by kicking people out of their houses, offices and cars, just because, as the term “get the steppin” was probably the most used phrase in Black homes by the time this incredible show went off the air in 1997.
2. The Fresh Prince (1990)
While Martin was certainly a product of the Black TV Renaissance of the 1990s, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was seemingly more the product of somebody trying to figure out what the hell to do with Will Smith. A man with a rap career going down the drain, Smith was still an undeniable talent, so when NBC saw him read for a character of Quincy Jones’ creation, finally, the people at his back had found the thing that was going to propel his career.
Yet another show that is sometimes derided for its popularity with white audiences, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was uniquely Black. It leaned all the way into hip-hop culture, kicking the show off with “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” lyrics that are now more universal than just about any other show out there. Will Smith, the character, was all Philly, and the charm, mannerisms, along with the cast of characters he engulfed around him, made him super relatable to Black people across America. And with the platform of NBC, white people got another glimpse at just how “cool” Black people are–and who can blame them for reaching such a conclusion?
The range of comedy this show traveled was amazing. We saw high school jokes and growing pains as Will entered into a new world. It made fun of Black male masculinity through sports. It highlighted Black father and son relationships. We never had an episode that didn’t somehow manage to make fun of rich people and just how out of touch they can sometimes be.
And of course, there was the aspect of dating, which Will, and others on the show, did frequently, and often in hilarious and surprising ways. Who can ever forget Trevor’s incomplete wedding proposal?
All and all, Fresh Prince had us coming back to the TV non-stop, every Monday for six seasons, and the concept was so brazen and unique, that of course, the studios thought why not run it back with a spin-off (of sorts) yet again?
1. The Cosby Show (1984)
Okay, let’s get this part out of the way. Bill Cosby has done some unforgivable things, and in no way can we condone the things that he has gone to prison for. However, we’re going to separate the art from the artist here, because try as we might, The Cosby Show was so impactful on the lives of Black people, particularly younger Gen X and older Black millennials, that it remains near the top of the list of just about any Black person you would ask to rank their favorite black shows.
While George and Weezy certainly moved on up in The Jeffersons, Heathcliff and Claire were seemingly the products of generational Black greatness, and that was exemplified in every show, not excluding the credits, which often times featured great jazz music. And let’s just face it: this show just made you feel good if you grew up watching it. A doctor for a dad. A lawyer for a mom. And yet, they still had children that seemingly had all of the same problems we did–whether it was bullying at school, struggling in college, or starting a new family, the Huxtable’s kids were average Joes despite growing up in the well to-do part of Brooklyn, which ultimately made this $400 weather wearing family somehow relatable to us all. But let me not besmudge the sweaters too much–because it was that aspect of the show that also made it aspirational. As a Black person, this show made it so you could actually see yourself becoming a doctor or a lawyer. It made you want to go to college, and likely an HBCU. You saw what a healthy, but not perfect, marriage looked like. And you saw what involved parents meant in the lives of their kids. And that’s not to say that Black people didn’t see this in their daily lives–but they sure as hell didn’t see it on TV. So if it wasn’t already in your daily life, then this was where you got it. And for a whole generation of folks, perhaps more, this show is the reason they became the well-intentioned learners, earners and parents they came to be. Last but not least, while it’s hard to talk about the importance of The Cosby Show without bringing up all of its cultural significance, let’s not forget that this show was funny. It wasn’t #1 in America with white audiences because it was overly preachy–it made people laugh. Cosby was a fool. Theo was a fool. Vanessa was fool-ish. Kenny and Rudy were young fools, until Olivia came and was a younger fool. And you can’t forget the guest fool roles of the likes of Pam and Cockroach in the later season. For a show about upperclass Black people, it sure had a lot of fools…and perhaps it was the delicate mix that made it so great.
That’s it. That’s the list of the best Black TV shows of the sitcom variety. I know we left out some of your favorites like Living Single (sorry), The Boondocks (short-lived), A Different World (a product of The Cosby Show), or What’s Happening (hard to say it stood the test of time). But I hope this conversation starts more conversation, and we can keep reminding ourselves about all of the great classic and best Black TV shows we have had.
And at BlackOakTV, we hope to make even more Black classics. In fact, we think we already have a few:
The Closet B!tch stars an amazing actress in Shana Solomon, who is basically the light-skinned, female version of Eddie Murphy when it comes to her ability to humorize and play any and every, not to mention “all”, characters.
And last but not least, we even have a mockumentary in Untold Stories with Unknown People, which comes from the minds of Dormtainment and makes fun of the most talked-about documentaries of the past decade. You can check them all out, and more, by subscribing to BlackOakT today!