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Can two TV shows about Black female friendship not exist without being compared?

Dec 11, 2021

Harlem premiered last week with many reviews comparing it to Issa Rae’s standout comedy hit, Insecure. One writer looks at why we should stop comparing sitcoms about Black women with one another. 

Warning: spoilers for the first season of Harlem are ahead.

After what seems like the longest year in existence, it’s unsurprising that, for many of us, our go-to genre of television is comedy. Is there any better feeling than laughing your head off or having aching ribs after just 30 minutes of a new sitcom? I think not.

Channel 4’s We Are Lady Parts, Netflix’s The Chair, Amazon Prime Video’s Kevin Can F**k Himself and HBO’s Insecure are just a handful of the series that have all filled the comedy void and provided us with bountiful laughter this past year.

Joining the ranks of girl-group-focused sitcoms is Amazon Prime Video’s latest release Harlem, created by Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver.

Centred around a group of 30-something Black women, who all live in Harlem, New York, the series follows their fledgling careers, rollercoaster love lives and general life woes alongside thoughtful – yet hilarious – takes on gentrification, white guilt and inherited wealth.

The 10-episode series premiered on Prime on 3 December, and since its release, has been heavily comparedto Issa Rae’s standout series success Insecure. But why? 

Harlem stars Meagan Good, Jerrie Johnson, Grace Byers and Shoniqua Shandai.

As a longtime fan of Rae’s and avid watcher (and re-watcher) of Insecure, I was initially perplexed at the comparison after watching the first few episodes of Harlem. While both comedies do focus on female friendships, that’s really where the similarities start and end.

It got me thinking: can two TV shows about a friendship group of young Black women not exist without being compared?

Are shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother, or Happy Valley and Mare Of Easttown compared in the same way? This instinctive desire to pit Harlem and Insecure against each other serves as a reminder that television (still) severely lacks stories about ordinary Black women just living their lives. 

Harlem stars Meagan Good, Jerrie Johnson, Grace Byers and Shoniqua Shandai.

Chatting with my friend Meeka, who is also a Black woman, she described the series as “binge-worthy” and especially thought that “the chemistry between the cast and characters was great.”

“I enjoyed the series because it’s funny, exciting, and relatable. The show centres around sisterhood, with a group of four friends in the city trying to figure it out.

“I’ve seen quite a few comparisons linking the show to TV series such as Insecure and while I understand that both shows follow a similar format, I think both series are completely different.

Meeka adds: “They deserve to co-exist without the comparison” and I wholeheartedly agree.

Harlem stars Meagan Good, Jerrie Johnson, Grace Byers and Shoniqua Shandai.

In the first episode we meet the group. Camille (Meagan Good), is an assistant professor of anthropology who is trying to get back on the dating scene after breaking up with her longtime boyfriend Ian (Tyler Lepley). Tye (Jerrie Johnson) is a successful tech entrepreneur who has created the first dating app for queer people of colour; Quinn (Grace Byers) is a sustainable clothing boutique owner and designer who is trying to live up to the expectations of her discerning mother (Jasmine Guy); and Angela (Shoniqua Shandai), is a former recording artist who is finding her feet in questionable Broadway productions.

Something that’s most lovable about Harlem is the fact that we learn so much about each woman individually, then as a collective. While we’re introduced to Camille first, and follow her rollercoaster love life throughout, we view her as a main character – but she’s not the sole one in the series. This is one of the many things that’s different to Insecure (where Issa is the central figure) and only highlights why the two series shouldn’t be compared. 

Like any good sitcom too, we bounce around the city, but a Harlem neighbourhood restaurant provides us with that all-important base where the women chat over margaritas, brunch or dinner.

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As much as this series is about friendship (and how accountable friends really are the best kind), it’s also about honouring and listening to our emotions.

Angela feels conflicted taking part in Get Out: The Musical, Tye fears dating white women will lead to backlash from fellow queer people of colour, Quinn thought she’d marry a high-flying professional husband, Camille keeps thinking “what if?” when it comes to Ian. The series is permeated with many conflicting emotions throughout its 10 episodes but you know what? It’s a perfect reflection of life.

While the series does deal with more complex issues like medical racism, the “strong Black woman” trope and professional mentorship (as explored through Whoopi Goldberg’s formidably funny character as Camille’s new boss), it’s largely a comedy that will make you laugh out loud, want to squeal about it in the group chat and is also hilariously relatable.

Watch Harlem on Amazon Prime Video now. 

Images: Amazon Prime Video

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