An African American woman from a community outreach nonprofit group is addressing a grade-school class when one student interrupts: “Why you talk like a white girl?”
A plus-sized African American woman is seducing her white on-and-off boyfriend, promising a night of carnal delight: “Come get this chocolate pie!”
A young African American man is confronted outside his parents’ house by his disapproving father, who accuses the son of always asking for money. He tells his son he can’t come into the house because “I can’t afford it.”
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These scenes come from three new African American-themed TV comedies debuting in the fall in a medium still largely dominated by shows about whites. Each is the product of distinctive African American talents who created and star in them. Each is notable for its edgy, honest depiction of black life — a rarity on American television.
The depictions of situations, nuances, cultural references, language and interactions within and outside the African American universe that confront the key characters in the series will be recognizable to many black viewers, particularly since they are largely unfiltered through a mainstream prism. But the writers and producers of the shows also believe that general audiences will find universal truths and situations that they can identify with. The scene of the woman addressing the students is an introduction to HBO’s “Insecure,” which was co-created and stars Issa Rae, who developed a huge following with her popular YouTube series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” In the show, which premieres Oct. 9, Rae plays a twentysomething navigating humorously uncomfortable situations in her personal and professional life.
“Loosely Exactly Nicole,” which premiered last week on MTV, stars comedienne Nicole Byer (MTV’S “Girl Code”) as a slightly fictionalized version of herself — a rotund, charismatic aspiring actress reaching for her slice of the Hollywood dream. In addition to her occasional lover, Byers also has a considerable sexual appetite.
Also premiering last week was FX’s “Atlanta,” created by Donald Glover (“Community”). Glover, who also serves as writer, director and executive musical director of the show, stars as a broke and nearly homeless young man to trying to turn his life around — and hopefully reverse the disappointment of his parents — as the manager of his rapper cousin.
The three shows are launching at a time when the volatile topic of race — particularly when it comes to the presidential race, the shootings of unarmed African American males by police and movements such as #BlackLivesMatter — is center stage on the national scene.
None of the shows are overtly political or topical. They share some similarities — the main characters are single and unsettled personally and professionally.. “Atlanta” and “Insecure” have a hip-hop sensibility, and the N-word is peppered through both shows.
But the comedies have their separate identities, projecting a vivid — and often provocative— view of African American life rarely projected on mainstream television. While popular shows such as “black-ish” and “Empire” have won favor with white viewers as well as people of color, these new shows are told from a younger perspective.
Rae applauded the trend. “I’m so excited to be part of this,” she said in a phone interview. “On a creative level, I know they will be all different because we’re all different”.
Byer, who is an executive producer and writer of her show, echoed Rae’s enthusiasm in a separate interview.
“ “It’s great that the voices of young people of color are being respected, and that we’re being allowed to work,” Byer said. “All three of us are pretty hands-on our shows, if not fully hands-on, which is incredible.”
More significantly, “Insecure,” “Loosely Exactly Nicole” and “Atlanta” offer a sharp counterpoint to such past and present shows as “Girls,” “Sex in the City,” “Friends,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “New Girl” that revolve mostly around young white characters.
“Insecure,” which Rae created with former talk-show host and writer Larry Wilmore (“black-ish”) explores the sometimes dicey relationship friendship between two black women wrestling with conflicts inside and outside black culture.
The show is a breakthrough for HBO, which has been repeatedly criticized in past years for showcasing shows about white women while ignoring stories about women of color. “Girls,” created by and starring Lena Dunham, has particularly come under fire for its focus on young white characters even though it is based in New York City.
Set in Inglewood, “Insecure” features Rae’s character, named Issa Dee, dealing with the awkwardness of being a single black woman: Her long-standing relationship with her live-in boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis) appears to be going nowhere fast. Her job at the nonprofit agency is also problematic — the organization, geared to assist people “in the hood,” is predominantly staffed by white people. She often props herself in front of a mirror, giving herself pep talks.
Rae believes “Insecure” presents some universal truths that will be identifiable for all races.
“There are things about being female and being black in the show, but that’s not at the forefront,” said Rae. “We’re dealing with regular people who just happen to be black. There’s nothing high stakes, and that’s just fine. Hopefully everyone who watches will be able to point and say, ‘Hey, I know that person. I know what they’re going through.’ ”
The humor of Byer in “Loosely, Exactly Nicole” is more over-the-top, with Byer exhibiting an energetic — and highly sexual — persona. Her character lives in a crummy Van Nuys apartment. Her two closest friends are white — her gay roommate Devin (Jacob Wysocki), and BBF Veronica (Jen D’Angelo). She’ll do anything to get an acting job — she paints the face of the son of of her Asian friend so she can pose as his mother during an audition.
Said Byer, “I’ve lived an interesting life. During my 20s, I truly said ‘yes’ to everything, whether it was a good idea or not. Each episode contains a nugget of a true thing that happened to me, and there there is an element that we sort of build on. I just want people to watch and laugh, and not worry about all the terrible things going on in the world.”
“Atlanta” represents the singular, quirky vision of Glover that contains elements of dark humor and even violence. Describing the offbeat structure of the series during the summer session of the Television Critics Assn. press tour, Glover indicated that the series is more about tone than narrative.
“The thesis with the show was kind of to show how it felt to be black, and you can’t really write that down,” Glover said at the time. “You kind of have to feel it. So the tonal aspect was really important to me.”
He portrays Earn Marks, who is so broke and irresponsible that Van (Zazie Beetz), his girlfriend and mother of his young daughter, is close to kicking him out of their home. But he thinks he can pull his life together if he can convince his up-and-coming rapper cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) to hire him as his manager.
Glover is better known to mainstream audiences than Rae or Byer, and viewers used to his nerd role on “Community” may be mystified by “Atlanta.” A shooting and its aftermath in the first and second episodes are mostly played for laughs. Most of the young African American men demonstrate little ambition or responsibility, spending their days smoking weed and playing video games. Earn does not appear to be a devoted parent or partner. Alfred carries a gun around, and is quick to pull it out.
Glover said at TCA that some viewers familiar with his work may be thrown off by the series. “Some of them will be “Oh, that’s cool.” Some of them will be like ‘I hate this thing. I don’t get him.’ That happens a lot. I think people are always, like ‘I don’t get this guy,’ like ‘I don’t understand him.’ and that’s, I think, good. Like, I think that’s really good, actually.”
Rae is hopeful that all three shows pave the way for more edgy fare from people of color: “There are so many stories to tell.”