The underappreciated gems in Black TV’s canon

The underappreciated gems in Black TV’s canon

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We’re in a golden age of Black television. Following decades of hard-fought battles, Black creators, writers, producers and stars are better positioned than ever to tell their own authentic and dynamic stories on prime time and major streaming networks. This year alone has seen Janine Nabers’s psychological thriller “Swarm,” Boots Riley’s “I’m a Virgo” and Hulu’s adaptation of “The Other Black Girl.”

I’ve watched these shows with keen interest completing “Black TV,” a book I’ve written that traces the progression of the Black TV canon from “Julia,” starring Diahann Carroll, to more recent shows such as “Atlanta,” “Insecure” and Quinta Brunson’s “Abbott Elementary.”

My biggest takeaway from surveying more than 50 years of groundbreaking series — centered on Black people and their experiences — is that no Black TV show exists in a vacuum. Whether through influence, mentorship or advocacy, Black creatives have consistently propped open Hollywood’s doors for one another. There would be no “Scandal” without “Julia,” no “Blackish” without “Good Times,” no “Swarm” without “Atlanta.”

To fully understand the evolution of Black TV, it’s important to revisit those special shows that have faded from popular memory, struggled to get their deserved recognition, got overshadowed by bigger hits or were (all too commonly) canceled before their time. How these shows were made and how viewers received them remains an important part of the story. This list features influential but underappreciated shows that might fill in some gaps for viewers who want to better understand the Black TV canon.

The Flip Wilson Show (1970)

Flip Wilson was a huge star in his time, but his name may not be immediately recognizable to subsequent generations. Decades before Arsenio Hall brought Black culture to late night, Wilson created and hosted his own NBC variety show. “The Flip Wilson Show” followed a well-received special Wilson created with producer Bob Henry. Henry had been a producer on the short-lived “Nat King Cole Show,” which — despite the popularity of its host — could not survive the racist advertising attitudes of the 1950s.

Wilson leveraged the success of “The Flip Wilson Special” into executive-producing his eponymous series, which debuted in the fall of 1970 with guests James Brown, David Frost and two of Sesame Street’s finest: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Wilson’s most famous bit was no doubt his character Geraldine Jones, whom he portrayed in a Pucci dress and full glam, while regaling the audience with tales of her boyfriend, Killer, and establishing catchphrases that became ubiquitous among viewers: “The devil made me do it” and “What you see is what you get.”

“Flip Wilson doesn’t get enough shine in my world, especially as a businessman who did some amazing things,” Hall told the Pocono Record in 2017. “When you look at TV as a child, and see Flip Wilson owns the show, is executive producer, I remember as a kid wanting to know what that meant. As a man, I got to sit and meet him, find out how special that was in that era of show business.” (Select episodes stream on the Roku Channel)

227 (1985)

No, “227” wasn’t the show that revolutionized television about Black families in the 1980s. But perhaps it should have been.

In 1984, execs from the Big Three networks went to see Marla Gibbs — who became an audience favorite as the wisecracking housekeeper Florence on “The Jeffersons” — in a play by Chicago native Christine Houston called “Two Twenty Seven” at the Los Angeles community theater she co-founded. NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff was impressed, and the network began developing a series loosely based on it.

The network moved the setting of Houston’s story to Northeast Washington, D.C., and softened some of the dynamics between Gibbs’s character and her counterparts — Mary’s husband, Lester Jenkins, (Hal Williams) had been a philanderer in the play but became a dedicated family man on the series. Helen Martin took on the role of feisty neighbor, Pearl Shay, and Jackée Harry played Sandra Clark, Mary’s bawdy neighbor and frenemy. The series also introduced a young Regina King, as Mary and Lester’s teen daughter, Brenda.

The show was seen as a star vehicle for Gibbs, who helped develop it, sat in on casting and editing sessions and wrote several episodes but was credited only as a lead cast member. Throughout the show’s five seasons, Gibbs and other cast members were candid in media interviews about a disparity between the show’s organic popularity and the network’s promotion of it — or lack thereof. Harry, initially contracted for just seven episodes, became a fan favorite, winning the 1987 Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series.

“227” had been in the works before “The Cosby Show” premiered in the fall of 1984, but Gibbs was repeatedly asked how that show’s success had affected “227.” It was an apples to oranges comparison. “We represent the masses who are hard-working and struggling to help themselves,” she said in 1986. “We are Black, but there is nothing particularly unique to these Black families.” (Streams on Hulu)

Frank’s Place (1987)

Years after appearing as Venus Flytrap on the fan favorite “WKRP in Cincinnati,” Tim Reid reunited with WKRP creator Hugh Wilson to produce a series about a Boston professor who inherits a New Orleans bar.

Reid, a native of Norfolk, and Wilson, who was from Florida, both wanted the show to be set in the South. It was a CBS exec who suggested the Big Easy, which Reid remembered fondly from a 1970s stint at the Playboy Club there. Reid and Wilson traveled to New Orleans to figure out the world “Frank’s Place” would inhabit.

That included Hanna, the embalmer played by Reids’ wife, Daphne Maxwell Reid, and the character’s mother, who was based on a funeral home owner with a rich story as the matriarch of her family.

A dramedy long before everything was a dramedy, “Frank’s Place” aired without a laugh track, featured several strong female characters and a majority-Black cast. It tackled serious storylines including gangs and colorism.

End of carousel

Despite critical acclaim and an Emmy for writing, CBS canceled “Frank’s Place” after one season. But it’s still remembered for its groundbreaking premise and for its attention to getting the Big Easy right. “Not only did it feature a main character who was black, but it often dealt with issues of race, in the process painting a compelling portrait of Black, working-class New Orleans,” Mike Scott wrote in the Times-Picayune. (Not currently streaming)

Roc (1991)

Critics hailed Fox’s “Roc” as one of the best new shows of the 1991-92 season. The sitcom starred Charles S. Dutton as Roc Emerson, a garbage collector who lives with his wife, Eleanor (Ella Joyce), a nurse, and their extended family in a working-class Baltimore neighborhood.

One early episode, which revolved around an unhoused pregnant woman who goes into early labor, is full of hilarious twists, but also takes a grim turn, as Roc presses the woman (Debbi Morgan) and her husband (Tommy Davidson) about how they ended up picking through the Emerson family’s trash.

“Oh yeah, you can talk. You got a house. You got a job. You got people who care about you. We don’t have that!” the husband tells him. “The chips fell your way; they didn’t fall my way.”

“Roc” shot its entire second season live, with Stan Lathan at the helm. The director, who made his foray into scripted shows on “Sanford and Son,” had directed a handful of Season 1 episodes before taking on all of Seasons 2 and 3. Nearly three decades before “Empire” featured a historic gay wedding, “Roc” aired a GLAAD Award-winning episode that found Roc’s Uncle Russell (Richard Roundtree, as in Shaft!) marrying his partner (Stephen Poletti).

Dutton battled with Fox executives over the tone of the show, with the network pushing more comedy and traditional sitcom elements than the Tony nominee was comfortable with. Citing low ratings, Fox canceled “Roc” after its third season — despite protests from viewers and even a Congressional Black Caucus effort to get the show back on the air.

“I just find it interesting that a show Fox always said couldn’t find an audience was never showcased in order to gain one,” Dutton said. (Streams on Pluto TV)

Living Single (1993)

Yvette Lee Bowser’s beloved show about four dynamic, successful Black women and their inner circle in Brooklyn (before it was gentrified!) gained a new generation of fans when Hulu added it in 2018. But it didn’t really get its flowers until 2020 when “Friends” alum David Schwimmer, bless his heart, suggested “there should be a Black ‘Friends,’” and Black Twitter issued a collective ahahah-ahem.

NBC head of entertainment Warren Littlefield was at an annual industry event in 1993 where it had become tradition to poll network execs on the shows they would poach if they could. Littlefield chose Fox’s “Living Single,” noting that he would schedule it on Mondays after “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and move “Blossom” to another night.

This was all hypothetical — until the fall of 1994 when “Friends” premiered opposite “Living Single’s” 8 p.m. time slot on Thursdays. Both sitcoms were filmed on the Warner Bros. lot — in such proximity that, as the Los Angeles Times noted, “Living Single” star Queen Latifah could see a huge billboard advertising “Friends” on her way into work. By contrast, she could barely make out the faces on the nearby billboard advertising “Living Single” and other WB properties.

“Friends” amassed a franchise’s worth of branded merch — Central Perk mugs, T-shirts and the like — while “Living Single” slid in the ratings before being canceled by Fox in the middle of its fifth season. “It’s disappointing that we have never gotten that kind of push that ‘Friends’ has had,” Bowser told the L.A. Times in 1996. “I have issues with the studio and the network over the promotion of this show.” (Streams on Hulu and Max)

The PJs (1999)

Larry Wilmore has been involved in a number of Black TV gems, mined across decades from writing gigs on “In Living Color” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to his creation of “The Bernie Mac Show” and (alongside Issa Rae) “Insecure.” His most underappreciated effort was based on an idea Eddie Murphy had for a satire about puppets in the projects.

Wilmore teamed up with his former “In Living Color” colleague Steve Tompkins to bring Murphy’s idea to stop-motion life in a sitcom about residents of the Hilton-Jacobs projects.

“Juicy, man, I hope we never get old,” a teenage resident says in one episode. “Well,” his friend tells him, “the statistics are in our favor.”

Murphy voiced the protagonist, Thurgood, who served as the dilapidated building’s superintendent. Black TV royalty rounded out the rest of the cast: Loretta Devine, Ja’Net DuBois (of “Good Times” fame) and Jenifer Lewis.

“The PJs” generated a fair amount of controversy during its three-season run, which ended on the WB. Spike Lee made headlines during the 1999 Television Critics Association press tour, where he declared that the animated series showed “no love at all for Black people.”

Wilmore publicly disagreed. “These characters come from my life,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I’m not allowed the same autobiographical options that a white writer would have?” (Streams on Hulu)

Queen Sugar (2016)

Ava DuVernay’s OWN adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s 2015 novel of the same name felt fresh and long overdue when it debuted. The series, co-created by Oprah Winfrey, followed three siblings, Nova (Rutina Wesley), Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) and Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe), who unexpectedly inherit their father’s sprawling sugar cane farm after his sudden death.

DuVernay and her staff grounded the drama in challenging family dynamics, epic love stories — from Ralph Angel’s on-off relationship with Darla (Bianca Lawson) to Aunt Violet (Tina Lifford) finding love in her 50s — and social commentary. But “Queen Sugar’s” influence is as notable for what happened on screen as it is for what DuVernay did behind the scenes, hiring only female directors to helm each episode.

The directors included veterans like Neema Barnette — the first Black woman to direct a sitcom (with an episode of “What’s Happening Now”) — and several filmmakers including Kat Candler, who struggled to land TV directing gigs despite already having directed a feature film.

“They all killed it, and they’re working now,” DuVernay said in 2016. “Not just working — but in demand.” (Streams on Hulu)

Bethonie Butler’s book “Black TV: Five Decades of Groundbreaking Television from ‘Soul Train’ to ‘Black-ish’ and Beyond” is out now from Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers.

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