As we get set for the Season 2 premiere of “Harlem” this Friday, February 3rd, our reviewer gives “Harlem” a bingeworthy grading. However, this particular black TV show from Amazon Prime still leaves her wanting a little bit more.
When the trailer for Amazon Prime’s original series Harlem popped up in my feed, I was both shocked and skeptical considering Starz’s Run The World premiered in the same year with the exact same premise – four ambitious Black women navigating friendship, love, and career in Harlem.
I was hesitant to embrace Harlem at first. I thought, “Really, how many Black women best friend shows do we need? At least change the setting. Can we get some Black women in a fantasy series? Maybe in space?” And yet, by the end of the first episode, I was hooked.
Created by Tracy Oliver, whose writer-producer credits include The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, Girls Trip, and Little, the show follows the lives of besties Camille, Tye, Quinn, and Angie with a gentrifying Harlem as their backdrop.
Each woman comes from a different walk of life and with a different set of challenges. Camille (Meagan Good) is an adjunct anthropology professor at Columbia waiting to get an opportunity to get a tenure track job while still getting over an ex who’s just walked back into her life–and on her block (gasp!), to be specific. Tye (Jerri Johnson) is a successful tech boss by day, f*ckgirl by night. Quinn (Grace Beyers) is a trust fund baby just trying to keep her struggling boutique afloat, and Angie (Shoniqua Shandai) is a starving artist crashing on Quinn’s couch until her music career actually gets started.
While Harlem doesn’t reinvent the wheel – nothing is totally new in Hollywood these days – it does push the Black women quartet genre forward in refreshing, exhilarating, and comedic ways. Where shows like Girlfriends, Insecure, and Run the World consistently dropped the ball when it came to issues such as queer representation and body diversity, Harlem picks it right on up and scores. Pardon the, uh, sports metaphors.
In an ensemble show like Harlem, the chemistry between the cast as well as the complexity and depth given to each character is everything. We need to believe these are actually friends, and for the most part the core cast is relatively convincing. Though at times I wish the characters felt a little more lived in and less stale on delivery, Camille, Tye, Quinn, and Angie are all compelling, fleshed out characters in their own right.
Though Camille is the central character, Jerri Johnson’s portrayal of Tye, a masculine presenting lesbian, is particularly a breath of fresh air. Besides Hattie in Lena Waithe’s series Twenties, depictions of queer masculine Black women are few and far between. Seeing two Black women in a sex scene together shouldn’t be novel in 2021, but somehow it still is. Not only is Tye made three dimensional and flawed, but she’s also allowed to be vulnerable. In one episode, when she’s trying on a new fit for a Forbes photoshoot she’s nervous and worried about it going right and requires consoling from her friends. Tye also isn’t the only one as Quinn finds herself exploring the fluidity of her sexuality. That’s quite a leap from Lynn’s shotgun wedding to a suicidal woman in Girlfriends, and a much appreciated one at that.
Shoniqua Shandai also delivers a breakout performance as unfiltered, sex positive Angie. She rocks her dark brown skin, curvy body, and big ‘fro with confidence – as she should! A lot of the show’s witty dialogue and quips come from her. A couple of my personal favorites include: “Are we really commuting for c*ck?” when Quinn makes the trek out to Staten Island for a lackluster date, “Capitalism is bullshit. That’s why I don’t do jobs,” and referring to a hotep producer of “Get Out: The Musical” as “that emancipated n*gga.”
Rest assured, Angie isn’t the only source of comedy in the show. Harlem’s writers create some hilarious situations for these women to get into. While they’ve probably aged out of shenanigans, they’ve definitely got their moments.
While Harlem gets a lot right, it also misses the mark in some areas. For a show named after a physical place with a rich history rooted in Black culture and a contemporary battleground over Black space and ownership, the show does very little to integrate its locale organically beyond dialogue about gentrification or a sparsely attended protest where Camille delivers an uninspired speech that the writers fully intended to be inspiring.
Whereas Insecure intricately made Inglewood, and South LA broadly, a character in the show through its striking visuals and shooting on location at familiar places, Harlem doesn’t seem to make much use of real places and spaces that matter to Harlem’s Black community with the exception of maybe a brief shot of The Apollo in one episode.
Camille’s relationship with the new head of her department Dr. Pruitt, played by Whoopi Goldberg, also leaves much to be desired. Camille’s position as an adjunct professor at Columbia is actually outrageously precarious, a pressing social reality the show doesn’t quite tackle with the gravity it deserves. For brilliant Black women adjunct professors like Thea Hunter, who actually worked at Columbia, substandard work conditions in academia’s underclass may have contributed to shortening her life span.
It’s a stretch to call Whoopi’s Dr. Pruitt a mentor to Camille no matter how badly Camille wants that to be the case. Even though Camille seeks allyship and support from Dr. Pruitt, someone she can let her guard down in front of, Pruitt is sort of cold and hard to impress or please. Now, I’m not saying Dr. Pruitt has to be all warm and fuzzy or hold Camille’s hand (because Black women owe that to no one), but a part of me winces at these representations of an elder, experienced Black woman making it so hard for the women coming up behind them to connect. Can we please get a storyline where a seasoned Black professional actually makes the effort to reach out to her up and coming colleagues?
And while I’m making requests, as we start to chip away at Hollywood’s brown paper bag casting practice, is it time we also got rid of the bougie, prudish light skin trope? At least Quinn’s got a dash of nuance as a child of West Indian immigrants. And Jasmine Guy swaps out her trademark Southern belle accent for a Caymanian one as Quinn’s mother in the series.
That all being said, Harlem is certainly worth a binge watch. I guess having more than one of the same show means we’ve made it. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’ve got ourselves a few seats at the table. Who let all these Black people in here?! Just kidding!
With each Black woman best friend living it up in the city series, we push the needle closer and closer to having more options for representations of Black female friendships. After all, it’s impossible to expect one show to tell all of our narratives, and we are not a monolith.
If you’re looking for even more content featuring the conquests of Black women taking on the world, check out the latest seasons of “The Closet B!tch”, now streaming on BlackOakTV.