Late in the premiere of the new Starz dramedy Run the World, Ella (Andrea Bordeaux) reveals to her old friend Sondi (Corbin Reid) that her on-again, off-again ex Anderson (Nick Sagar) is back in town. Sondi, exasperated, suggests she may have to have sex with Anderson herself to understand what Ella sees in him. “He’s my Big!” Ella explains — as in Mr. Big, the on-again, off-again lover of Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. Like Carrie, Ella is a writer living in Manhattan (Harlem instead of the Upper East Side), in her early thirties (she turns 32, the age Carrie was when SATC began, a few episodes in), and the first among equals in a show about four longtime friends navigating romance and other obstacles of life in the Big Apple.
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Of course, SATC didn’t invent the idea of a series built around four female friends. Run the World was created by Leigh Davenport, but the showrunner is Yvette Lee Bowser, who in the early Nineties created the terrific Fox comedy Living Single. One of that show’s stars, Erika Alexander, has an amusing supporting role here as Ella’s editor Barb, who seems aware (and maybe relieved?) that she’s aged out of the kinds of shenanigans Ella gets up to with pals Sondi, Whitney (Amber Stevens West), and Renee (Bresha Webb).
Both the “my Big” line and the presence of Alexander nod to the idea that Run the World exists on a continuum with series that have explored this territory before. But the similarities are thankfully superficial at best. Though the audacious Renee has a few traits in common with Samantha Jones or Regine Hunter, she’s her own character, in the same way that Ella and Anderson’s dynamic is ultimately nothing like Carrie and Big’s.
But if Run the World isn’t copying its many ancestors, it’s a worthy successor to them — smart and sweet and full of the kind of energy that can spark when old friends hang out together.
As the series begins, Ella has emerged from the wreckage of her unsuccessful debut book, and is beginning a new job at a website run by Barb. She’s also the only one of the quartet not in a long-term relationship. Renee is married to Jason (Jay Walker), Whitney is in the final stages of planning her wedding to Ola (Tosin Morohunfola), and Sondi is clandestinely dating her thesis advisor Matthew (Stephen Bishop) and helping to raise his young daughter. It will probably not surprise you to learn that this is not the configuration in which they all end the season, though Davenport, Bowser, and company are at least as interested in the women’s friendships as their love lives, if not more. The four leads have fantastic chemistry with one another, whether all in a group or broken down into twos and threes.
This is a show with an all-black cast, with a black creator and showrunner, that’s largely concerned with its heroines’ emotional lives. When race moves to the forefront, it’s often for humorous purposes, like Renee’s exasperation when Jason tries invoking slavery to win an argument, or Ella’s discomfort when she hooks up with a white guy for the first time ever and he uses a different euphemism for his penis than what she’s used to from black men.
The women are all well-to-do, which adds a degree of lifestyle porn to the proceedings: Whitney and Ola share a huge high-rise apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city, while grad student Sondi can comfortably float the rent on her own apartment even though she essentially lives in Matthew’s gorgeous Harlem brownstone. Harlem is lovingly photographed, particularly in the largely plotless episode fourth episode where the friends enjoy a day of wandering around their favorite parts of the neighborhood.
The episodes move briskly, though Run the World suffers a bit from the protagonist problem, where Ella’s stories tend to be less compelling than what her friends are dealing with. But even that’s not a huge issue, since Davenport largely treats it as an ensemble, with Ella simply our initial way into the story rather than our guide throughout.
“It’s a very clear, well-established pop-cultural road map for this,” Sondi says of Ella’s Mr. Big comparison. Luckily, that map is very big and has lots of room for more travelers — especially when they’re as likable and fun as these four women.
Run the World premieres May 16th on Starz, with episodes premiering weekly. I’ve seen all eight episodes of the first season.
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