Last month, dance choreographer and television producer Debbie Allen took to her Twitter account with a passionate plea. It was a call for the return of her popular late 80s, early 90s sitcom A Different World. Allen had just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the spinoff, originally conceived of as a vehicle for Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet, who later left the show after its first season. Despite Bonet’s departure, A Different World lived on for six seasons, serving as a fresh window into a facet of the black experience that had not been explored on American television before - the black collegiate experience.
“We need to recap this groundbreaking series that is so missed in TV today,” Allen wrote. “Can I get an amen?”
At the height of its popularity, A Different World was the second most-viewed black sitcom on television, tackling then taboo issues like HIV/AIDs, class relations amongst black people, blackface and the mammy image, the LA Riots, and the Gulf War. It was a new take on an old form, yes, but it was also following in a tradition that had began before The Cosby Show with programs in the late 60s and early 70s like The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son - shows that brought the funny but still, at times, attempted to take on “real issues” - issues that often acknowledged the not so swell parts about being black in America. And in the wake of Cosby and A Different World came a flood of black 90s sitcoms - The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Living Single, Family Matters, Martin, The Parent ‘Hood - over fifty or so shows on network channels that focused on everything from tight knit working class families, Beverly Hills millionaires, boy geniuses, high school music teachers, twins switched at birth, and housing project supers.
But then, by the end of the decade, something shifted. Sitcoms depicting black life began to gradually drop off the rosters of the Big Three networks (CBS, ABC, NBC) as the popularity of shows like Friends and reality television began to rise. According to The New York Times, between 1997 and 2001 the number of thriving black sitcoms dwindled from 15 to only 6. This included Girlfriends, The Bernie Mac Show, The Jamie Foxx Show, The Steve Harvey Show, Moesha, and its spinoff The Parkers. Today, there are just about the same number of black sitcoms in rotation, all of them on basic cable (like Tatyana Ali’s Love That Girl! and Ice Cube’s Are We There Yet?), and two of them the brainchildren of Tyler Perry (take that how you will).
It seems we’ve entered a period in which the black sitcom, in the most traditional sense, is entirely unsure of what it wants to be. The three-camera comedy as an entity is in a bit of a transition period - single-camera shows like 30 Rock, The Office, and Modern Family (all with one or two complimentary brown and black characters) have irrevocably changed the television comedy landscape. But for the black sitcom, a sense of nostalgia and creative ennui remains. TV Land’s recent announcement that it will begin airing reruns of The Cosby Show in primetime this year and the positive reaction to Allen’s tweets last month suggest a yearning for a black sitcom of the past.
Reed Between the Lines, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, was one of the many new shows picked up by BET, created as a sort of Facebook generation answer to that yearning. It centers on a middle-class black couple balancing their careers with parenthood. Comparisons to The Cosby Show were unavoidable - even the set was distinctly similar to the familiar layout of the Huxtables’ iconic brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. In an interview with Upscale magazine, former Cosby kid Warner acknowledged the similarities, saying: “None of us is Bill Cosby, so we’re not trying to recreate Cosby. What we are trying to recreate is the universality and the timelessness.”
Sometimes the wheel can be reinvented into something sleeker, smoother, hipper. But, for all intents and purposes, it is still a wheel, and Reed fails to add anything exciting or new to the family sitcom setup. Tracee Ellis Ross recently revealed that she was leaving the show to focus on new projects, while BET has announced plans to create a spinoff series chronicling the adventures of series regular Jacob Latimore at the fictional HBC Mt. Pleasant University. It’s history repeating itself, and rather than capturing a universal or timeless quality the stale premises and seem weirdly dated. They’re redundant when they mean to be revolutionary. But that revolution happened twenty years ago, with Clair and Cliff Huxtable and their five well-adjusted kids, with Whitley, Dwayne, and the Hillman class of ‘91.
Two years ago, Vibe suggested that with the dwindling amount of black sitcoms on network television, cable had to potential to “revolutionize the genre.” Today, one wonders if all cable has really done is keep the life support on. Still, there is some hope, and it is coming not from television but from the web, a new frontier. Issa Rae’s wildly popular Awkward Black Girl has flourished, embraced by audiences starved for a different perspective on the black sitcom. Along with it new online shows like The Couple, Roomloverfriends, and The New 20s have gathered followings, and it seems that the web is providing a platform for these shows that wouldn’t have been available to them on TV.
But while the web has proven an exciting space for original content, one still wonders whether the same space will ever be made on network television. BET recently announced two upcoming sitcoms - The Real Husbands of Hollywood (based on the popular 2011 BET Awards sketch), and Second Generation Wayans, a scripted comedy described as “a cross between Entourage and How to Make it in America,” chronicling the efforts of Marlon and Damon Wayans’ nephews to make it in Hollywood on their own. The concepts are timely and intriguing, but it remains to be seen if anything interesting will actually be done with them.
The future of the black sitcom may be a decidedly hazy one at the moment, but the content being produced for the web gives at least some insight about what might be ahead. Perhaps it isn’t A Different World 2.0 that the genre needs, but certainly the sort of “groundbreaking” new perspectives that made Allen’s show so popular in the early 90s and are now making Rae’s Awkward Black Girl an icon for a new age.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Digital Spy, Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Afropunk. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.