The Covid (20)19 virus that blew up in 2020 and went hard into 2021 was miserable for us all. For Americans, you would’ve thought our many riches, advanced healthcare, and scientific expertise would have allowed us to get through this better than most.
And if you’re Black, it was even worse. With black people already systemically disadvantaged by poor healthcare, lower earnings, and more frontline jobs, most datasets suggest that black people are dying from Covid at more than twice the rate of white people.
It’s truly a sad reality that turned many Black people to seek out additional support, financial assistance, entrepreneurship, prayer, civil unrest, and even, good, old-fashioned, television.
During a pandemic that saw much of the television world shut down, we were blessed with the fact that there were still several Black TV shows already out of production that could help us get through the long, lonely nights of quarantine. If not for them, I’m not sure how many people would have had such a welcoming escape from all of the sickness, death, and systemic racism that unveiled itself during this crisis-plagued period.
Thus, I wanted to give a shoutout to the Black TV shows that brought black people back to their TV screens in unison by going through the top 5 black shows of the 2020-2021 pandemic era of TV and revisit what made them special–particularly as it relates to the struggles and ills suffered as a result of coronavirus and being stuck inside all day–for many days over!
Top 5 Black TV Shows of the Covid-19 Pandemic
Honorable Mention: #blackAF
There were many mixed reviews for #blackAF, but love it or hate it, if you were Black and in quarantine in 2020, you knew about it. And the less you loved the show, the more likely you were to have talked about it. #blackAF spurred a gazillion conversations about its creator Kenya Barris basically redoing Blackish, the exorbitant amount of money that went into replicating Kenya’s actual home into a TV set, the perceived colorism in casting the show, and poor acting–again, led mostly by Kenya who appeared on screen for the first time in his career. It seemed like every other Black podcast or YouTube channel I came across was talking about how bad this show was–and the views, likes, and comments followed, suggesting this was one of the most-talked-about shows of the year, as it was probably the first major Black TV show released once the first quarantines went into effect.
But while the haters had a field day ripping the show apart for the aforementioned reasons, the show had many fans. #blackAF was a tremendous exploration of financial survivor’s remorse, the uniqueness of Black parenting, growing up Black in a white world, and finding out that Tyler Perry does curse. It was just yet another masterclass in writing by Kenya Barris, who (and I know we may get slandered for this) is really the next most compelling person after Dave Chappelle when it comes to mixing comedy with societal commentary. He’s been doing that with Blackish for years, and #blackAF is a continuation of that, and probably at a higher level, as Kenya now lacks the Disney handcuffs that sidelined a whole ass completed episode (and who knows how many untold concepts that didn’t make it past Mickey Mouse’s desk). And the April-release couldn’t have come at a better time. When many of us were being told for the first time that we couldn’t visit our brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers, it was great that we could watch a show about a modern Black family that perhaps was around one another a little too much. No, it wasn’t all hugs and kisses on #blackAF, but it was still a family, a Black family, that brought many of us to our TV sets, and spurred a conversation that’s still taking place.
Honorable Mention: The Last Dance (Michael Jordan Documentary)
Like #blackAF, this was released early into quarantine times. In fact, ESPN rushed it to air after their sports calendar was extinguished during quarantine. Thank God for that, because if ever we needed appointment TV, it was then, and The Last Dance delivered! I won’t spend too much time on this, as it wasn’t a uniquely Black phenomenon, as just about anybody and everybody is fascinated by Michael Jordan. But the memes, tweets, post-episode commentary, and the mystery around MJ’s never-ending whiskey glass was a weekly phenomenon for 5 weeks in a row, and it gave us all something to look forward to every week at a time when there wasn’t much else to look forward to.
#5: P-Valley (Starz)
I’ve followed Katori Hall (creator of P-Valley) for many years now. I didn’t know her personally, but we were both at Columbia University for an overlapping period, and when I graduated to see her eventually doing big things in an industry I wanted to pursue, she was quickly added to the Google Alerts list to keep me in the know. So when I heard she was finally taking a break from the Theater world and going full-fledged into the universe of television, I couldn’t wait for this project to hit the air. Thankfully, her timing couldn’t have been better. With production done and over with well before the pandemic hit our shores, we got to see the P-Valley premiere, and oh what a premiere it was!
I don’t think the world, including Black people, was ready for a Black television show set in the deep south, primarily at a run-down strip club, full of female empowerment, Black girl magic, impromptu gay male sex, and a confident non-binary protagonist. But Katori sure did set us straight, as the eccentric characters, devious plotting, and Machavellian-like pursuits put us on a roller coaster for 8 episodes of “you don’t know what you’re going to get” television. I’ll admit, sometimes it was a little hard to follow, but every time we got lost, it seemed like Katori pulled us back in with an unforeseen plot twist that all of a sudden made all the sense in the world. It was almost like she was saying, “I know y’alls stupid asses didn’t catch that, so let me tell it to you again” (my words, not hers!).
By the end of the season, we all wanted more, couldn’t believe what came of the strip club, and have decided that Uncle Clifford is now America’s new favorite uncle.
#4: I May Destroy You (HBO)
It almost hurts me to put this at number 4, because it was so good! Correct me if I have this wrong, but I May Destroy You was written solely by Michaela Coel! That’s amazing. With the number of literary techniques, masterful character development, compelling plot twists, continuous humor, and thriller-like pacing, it’s amazing that one person alone could write 6 hours of television that great. Naturally, it took a Black woman to do it. And then to top it off, she starred in the damn show, and was amazing in it–effectively taking her range as an actress to heights I didn’t know she had–and I say that as a big fan of Chewing Gum. I haven’t even touched on the fact that the article that preceded the show’s debut and described her contract negotiations with Netflix and how she turned down $1 million upfront because she wanted a stake in the show was a culturally-compelling insight given it dropped right around the time of George Floyd’s death.
As for the show itself, it had so many of us drawn to our television this past summer. Right off the bat, it pulls Black Americans in with the cultural love and affinity of a group of Black friends in London on elevated display, showcasing both the similarity and uniqueness between Black cultures on both sides of the pond. But as the pilot episode and series continues, and we enter the mind of a woman who has been raped, and then raped again, and then her friend experiences a misleading sexual encounter, followed by her gay, black male friend’s dismissed tale of rape, wrapped up in tales of adultery and underage sex, it just makes you wonder what kind of fucking world do we live in? Hell, I’m sure many people watched this show and were thankful for the lockdowns, as it meant most of the bullshit that goes on at the hands of predators would cease to happen.
Despite all of the darkness, this was still a story about a Black woman fighting through it all–rape, friendship, career struggles, family drama, as well as her own distorted view of herself–only to overcome and be at peace with who she is, what she has done, and what the world has done to her. So many of us watched that show throughout the summer thinking that journey was going to lead us to a spectacular ending in which all was resolved, the antagonist was defeated, and the protagonist came out better than ever. I won’t spoil it for you all, but Michaela definitely threw us all for a loop in the finale, and the way she did it, probably left us all better off and with a much greater appreciation for the people fighting through some shit, as well as for the gift of a series she gave us.
If you’re Black, I don’t have to tell you how great Blackish is. Again, I know Kenya Barris has his detractors, but the awards, nominations, and ratings success don’t lie–the show is one for the ages. And while I’m pretty sure Kenya doesn’t always love this comparison, it’s hard not to see Blackish as anything but the modern-day equivalent of The Cosby Show with a defiantly black portrayal–although, I know there are those who would disagree with my assertion there. But those who disagree aside, Blackish’s great run throughout the pandemic is undeniable. On the front end, we saw one season of Blackish come to an end, setting the scene for yet another spin-off that we all will be happy to watch. And on the backend, Blackish not only returned in the fall with an animated version, Presidential-election commentary, and covid-19 storylines, but they also gave us some fire over the summer, releasing an old episode of Blackish that had been shelved because of its focus on Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling and the systemic (and systematic) racism in America. So Blackish got us coming and got us going, and thus was probably the most prolific Black tv show of the pandemic. Naturally, we lost no quality with the volume we got, as the show continues to move needles and the social dialogue.
Insecure is always the topic of Black Twitter, Black IG, Black drinks, and Black dinner conversations, so it’s always in a battle for the #1 spot if we’re ranking the Black shows of our time. We’ll talk about how it got unseated in a second, but at a time when we really needed Issa to come through with the dramedy, she did just that in what may have been the best season of Insecure yet?
I don’t say that lightly, because we know the show has had us talking ever since Lawrence forgot to celebrate Issa’s birthday. But this season really had us diving deep into the minds of upwardly-mobile, Black millennials, duking it out in this world. During a pandemic in which it seems entrepreneurship got even sexier, Insecure let us watch as Issa set the foundation for her own business and everything that goes into setting that up. During a time in which we’re all trying to maintain our friendships from a distance, we got to witness Issa and her best friend Molly grow further and further apart in ways that make it seem like they may never be able to get back to where they were. And during a Pandemic that has made us all question where we live, where we work, and for Black people in particular, who we’re partnering with, we saw Lawrence, Molly, and Tiffany all experience strife and change with the people and situations that, at one time, they allowed to define their happiness.
So yes, Insecure was a much-needed retrospection on our lives, and coincidentally enough, it was just the storytelling we needed in a time, with the season ending just a few weeks after Memorial Day, when we were just beginning to get really introspective.
#1: The Chi
Now, it’s hard to unseat Insecure in the daily lexicon, but coming on the air just a week or so after Insecure ended its fourth season, The Chi did just that. That said, it was a rough start. Going into it, tales of Lena Waithe’s (the creator) marital improprieties surfaced earlier in the year. Waithe’s second season of Boomerang (BET) didn’t match the critical appeal it had for its first season. And with The Chi itself, everyone was questioning how the show wrote out their former star Jason Mitchell (who was fired after sexual harassment allegations), and some of the plot discontinuity that emerged in the transition from Season 2 to Season 3.
But damn, did we get over that shit fast!
Season 3 of The Chi was fire, and it had us all borrowing our friends’ and family’s Showtime accounts at rates unbeknownst to subscription-sharing at any time in modern history. Yes, Kevin’s journey into manhood was just the tell we needed to see during a pandemic. A deeper look into his parents’ lesbian marriage was also a much-needed depiction when it comes to moving the culture forward. The mayoral race led by a gangster was a fascinating look into politics when our own Presidential race was a little too fascinating and “gangstery”. And certainly, Emmett’s growth (or lack thereof?) as a boyfriend, father, son, and (spoiler alert) fiancee was beautiful to see, even if he was tempted by that (now serial?) temptress stereotype character played by Lala Anthony, who seems to have cornered the market on roles getting men to do stupid things…and I mean that in a good way–shoutout to Lala!
But the storyline that had every Black person clutching their pearls, talking about what they would’ve done, figuratively screaming on Twitter, and literally screaming at their smart TVs, was the “Where’s Kiesha” storyline, in which our favorite Black girl teenager was abducted by–well, for a long time, we didn’t know who had abducted her!
But as the season wore on, we got bits and pieces of what happened, were led astray, were led back on the path, only to think it was too late, only to find out it wasn’t, but soon led again to believe all was lost. It was a great roller coaster ride, and even after that arc of the show had come to an end, the fallout and resolution were perhaps even more compelling, giving us both some of what I May Destroy You explored, along with the many growing pains that Insecure delivered.
It was really the best of both worlds because for all the drama of Kiesha’s storyline, The Chi continued to do what it always does, which is remind us of how hard, tough, demanding, and fucking beautiful it is to be a Black person in this country–and damn it, we needed that shit at that time in our lives when post-George Floyd and mid-Pandemic it seemed like everything around us was in question! So props to The Chi for giving us one of the rare moments in appointment television we get in this here streaming era, particularly serving up some great Black television that entertained, educated, and inspired a big portion of the black TV show watching audience that was looking for a respite and found it in this show.