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'Love Is_': OWN's new series about a black show biz couple and how they fell in love

'Love Is_': OWN's new series about a black show biz couple and how they fell in love
Michele Weaver and Will Catlett play young lovers in the late 20th century in a scene from the OWN series "Love Is_," based on the romance of series creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil. (Michael Desmond Photography/Warner Bros./OWN)

“Love Is_," premiering Tuesday on the OWN network, is — let us get this straight right away — not a television adaptation of that strange, strangely long-lived single-panel comic in which a naked man and woman, drawn like children, illustrate completed thoughts along the lines of "Love is being there" or "Love is getting flowers and it's not even your birthday."

Horrible to contemplate.

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Rather, and fortunately for the culture, it is the creation of Mara Brock Akil, earlier the creator of "Girlfriends" and "Being Mary Jane," and her husband, Salim Akil, the showrunner on "Black Lightning," based on their own story of falling in love in the late 1990s.

Handsomely mounted with a cast combining fresh faces and old pros, it is a mix of more and less successful ideas and effects. Admittedly, some of what works less well for me — the instant romance at the story's heart, the heartfelt musings on the course of life, the talk of dreams and realizing them — is just what will draw other viewers in.

The story is framed within a documentary set a decade hence, as future Nuri (Wendy Davis) and Yasir (Clarke Peters) look back three decades to how they met, fell in love and got together. These scenes, addressed to the camera against a blue background, have something of the flavor of a jewelry-store commercial, the eminence of the actors notwithstanding.

Michele Weaver plays Nuri, a young television writer based on Mara Brock Akil, co-creator of the OWN romantic drama "Love Is__."
Michele Weaver plays Nuri, a young television writer based on Mara Brock Akil, co-creator of the OWN romantic drama "Love Is__." (Michael Desmont Photography/Warner Bros./OWN)

The story itself begins in 1996, in Hollywood, at the real-life Insomnia Cafe — locals will note a preponderance of locations in the Beverly Boulevard/Melrose Avenue area — as Nuri (Michele Weaver) and Yasir (Will Catlett) briefly meet. A year later, they will meet again, and within what seems like minutes but is actually hours they will be declaring their love.

Nuri is a staff writer on a black sitcom called "Marvin," on a network resembling the late UPN — with perhaps a touch of the WB — home in the '90s to "Moesha," on which Brock Ali was a writer, "Malcolm & Eddie," "The Hughleys" and "Homeboys in Outer Space," and eventually to "Girlfriends". Yasir has ambitions to write and direct but no practical advantage over any of the hundreds of other Hollywood hopefuls with a script in hand, or any professional contacts at all. Oddly, he and Nuri don't discuss movies at all.

In the usual way of such stories, whether done as comedy or drama or somewhere in between, each has a best friend, more skeptical, cynical and funny and less conventionally attractive than themselves. (To be fair, the Akils do have movie-star looks.) His is Sean (Tyrone Brown, played by Tim Reid in the future scenes), happily aimless, aimlessly happy. Hers is Angela (the winning Idara Victor, later Vanessa Bell Calloway), a fellow staff writer further along in her career.

The scenes with their friends tend to be livelier and lighter and more ordinarily lifelike than those that Nuri and Yasir have together. They keep "Love Is_" from sinking under the weight of its own ardent sincerity. As the showrunner on Nuri's series, Kadeem Hardison, whose own '90s black sitcom roots are in "A Different World," provides similar relief from the repeated declarations of love. (Though, refreshingly, there is little in the way of sex — this is a show about delayed gratification, with an unusual sense of modesty.)

Will Catlett plays Yasir, a young man with dreams of directing, based on Salim Akil, co-creator of the OWN network series "Love Is__."
Will Catlett plays Yasir, a young man with dreams of directing, based on Salim Akil, co-creator of the OWN network series "Love Is__." (Michael Desmond Photography/Warner Bros./OWN)

Also traditional to the genre are other romantic involvements to be put aside. Nuri already has three men on the hook — a "TV takeout chill guy," a "church first communion brunch guy," a "whirlwind weekend until he's my hubby guy." (Mostly, she loves her work.) Yasir, for his part, is still living with a longtime, recently ex-girlfriend, Ruby (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing), sleeping on her couch and contributing little to their household.

That Ruby is less than impressed that he has worked out the ending to his "third script" at first seems cold. But as time goes on, it gets easier to see her point; yet as "Love Is_" moves on, their relationship can seem more solid and affecting than the one at the series' heart. They have a history, and the show is at its best at its most particular.

The old formula of "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" here runs more something like "Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl,” with further instructions to randomly repeat. Eventually, we see from the start, boy will get girl, and girl will get boy, though knowing how it all ends 30 years later — with none of the fatal diseases, traffic accidents or going off to fulfill a promise greater than the love between two people — does take a little off the edge of the drama.

Maybe that's a good thing — so much edge around these days!

‘Love Is_’

Where: OWN

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

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Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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