l doesn’t want to start this review by talking about Insecure, Issa Rae’s groundbreaking HBO comedy about four black women in their twenties and thirties in LA who broke the ground for on-screen black female friendship and an black ads pipeline off. Amazon’s Harlem, a ten-episode series about four black thirty-somethings in the storied New York borough created by Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver, must be judged on its own merits.
But it’s hard not to pair one with the other, from buzzy soundtrack to stylish wardrobes to similarly themed – the lingering question of an ex who may or may not be further along, dating apps, annoying white people, parental pressure. Uncertain echoes in the dynamics of the Harlem group: the self-righteous but endearing protagonist, the careerist who fears being vulnerable, the neurotic romantic, the bawdy and brazen source of comic relief.
Which isn’t to say that Harlem is just a reset of Insecure in New York; the half-hour series is a simple, at times fun, and at times intriguing watch that enters the still-underrated territory of single women in their thirties. But with characters whose pieces are thin, punchlines that often amount to horniness, and explanations of racist dynamics that seem to come out of an Instagram slideshow, Harlem often tests the limits of representation as justification.
The show’s quartet, like the group on Insecure, are best friends from their college days (swap Stanford for NYU), over 10 years ago. Beautiful, quirky but chronically clumsy, Camille (Meagan Good) is an assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia who hungers for tenure, confirmation, and another chance with her ex, Ian (P Valley’s Tyler Lepley), who unexpectedly returns to the neighborhood after a few years abroad. The most financially secure of the bunch, Tye (Jerrie Johnson) is the masc lesbian founder of a dating app for gay people of color whose icy exterior shields an intense aversion to vulnerability.
Quinn (Empire’s Grace Byers) struggles to keep her lasting fashion line afloat, doing everything she can to find a man and avoid asking her rich, mocking mother (Jasmine Guy) for more money; like Tiffany from Insecure, she’s the bunch’s type-A fashionista, whose exacting standards and desperation (going to Long Island for a disastrous date at 11 p.m., in one episode-long punch line) are a ridiculous contrast to her friends. Quinn is financially supporting Angela (newcomer Shoniqua Shandai) in an effort to revive her singing career after losing a record deal five years ago; like Kelli, the much meme of Insecure, Angie is bigger, louder, braver than her friends – eternally horny, perpetually seeking, the raunchy and gloriously confident punchline deliverer with comparatively less character development.
Over the season, the group navigates universal tribulations — dating, career setbacks, miscommunication — and neighborhood-specific issues: Harlem’s gentrification, the limited availability of single black men, the fraught dynamics of interracial dating in a predominantly black neighborhood. . The show can be fun – the chemistry of the quartet is infectious, the twists intriguing but at times exaggerated, the numerous men reliably hot, the soundtrack hip and the outfits never dull. Lepley and Good’s chemistry is more than enough to host a reunion that would surely cause a lot of trouble for many people, especially his British fiancé.
But the show sometimes feels stunned by what to do outside of proclaiming its representative politics. There’s something to be discovered in the ‘real man shortage’, but the points fit into an uneasy comparison of a women’s tribe in Asia studied by Camille, and literally ‘yassss queen’-ing. Harlem is most interesting when the easy assumptions of justice are complicated: when Camille teaches the gentrifying bistro what she’s protesting (only to impress her new boss, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who has disdain for Camille’s social media fame) hired Ian as head chef. Or when Tye’s reluctance to date a white woman collides with her fear of emotional intimacy, or when Angie’s desperation to become a singer meets the reality of an indulgent Get Out Broadway musical (Sunken Place song and dance included).
As a white critic, I’m wary of judging the politics of a show with no apology for and about black women. But the show’s didactic approach to racism—from Camille’s monologue about the Strong Black Woman’s style to Tye’s struggle to get insensitive white doctors to take her stomachache seriously—feels oddly aimed at a white audience and, in particular, whites. liberal debt. Regardless of intent or effect, the show’s overt goals on representation don’t cover for characters who, for most of the 10 episodes available for review, get stuck in the rut of a few commonly outlined characteristics.
Set five years in the past, the eighth episode of the series examines the decisions that break through the rest of the season and provides a welcome context for every woman’s constant troubles and regrets. By the end of the season, there’s plenty of material to grow on and off, and reason enough to give Harlem a second season to do just that.
The answer to “how can we improve representation in Hollywood” is often more – more characters, more shows, more storylines, more opportunities. It’s undeniably a good thing that characters like Camille, Tye, Quinn and Angie can be messy, alternately annoying and attractive protagonists, that female friendship is the backbone, that a show like Harlem exists and develops. I wish the character development would keep up with the progressive base of the show.