I don’t want to start this review by talking about Insecure, Issa Rae’s seminal HBO comedy about four Black twenty-to-thirtysomethings in LA that broke ground for Black female friendship onscreen and built a pipeline for Black creatives off it. Amazon’s Harlem, a 10-episode series about four Black thirtysomethings in the storied New York neighborhood created by Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver, should be measured on its own merits.
But it’s hard not to map one on to the other, from buzzy soundtrack to stylish wardrobes to similar themes – the lingering question of an ex who’s maybe or maybe not moved on, dating apps, annoying white people, parental pressure. Insecure echoes in the dynamics of the Harlem group: the self-involved but endearing protagonist, the careerist afraid of being vulnerable, the neurotic romantic, the ribald and unapologetic font of comic relief.
Which is not to say Harlem is simply a reset of Insecure in New York; the half-hour series is an easy, sometimes fun and occasionally intriguing watch that treads the still undervalued ground of single women in their thirties. But with characters whose bits wear thin, punchlines that frequently boil down to horniness and explanations of racist dynamics that feel pulled from an Instagram slideshow, Harlem often tests the limits of representation as justification.
The show’s quartet, like the group on Insecure, are best friends from their college days (swap Stanford for NYU), 10-plus years ago. Camille (Meagan Good) is beautiful, headstrong yet chronically awkward, an assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia hungry for a tenured position, validation and another shot with her ex, Ian (P Valley’s Tyler Lepley), who unexpectedly returns to the neighborhood after several years abroad. Tye (Jerrie Johnson) is the most financially secure of the bunch, the masc lesbian founder of a dating app for queer people of color whose icy exterior shields an intense aversion to vulnerability.
Quinn (Empire’s Grace Byers) struggles to keep her sustainable fashion line afloat, going to great lengths to find a man and to avoid asking her wealthy, derisive mother (Jasmine Guy) for more money; like Insecure’s Tiffany, she’s the type-A fashionista of the bunch, whose exacting standards and desperation (going to Long Island for a disastrous 11pm date, in one episode-long punchline) offer ridiculous contrast to her friends. Quinn financially supports Angela (newcomer Shoniqua Shandai), attempting to relaunch her singing career after getting dropped from a record deal five years ago; like Insecure’s much-memed Kelli, Angie is bigger, louder, more brash than her friends – perpetually horny, perpetually searching, the raunchy and gloriously self-confident deliverer of punchlines with comparatively less character development.
Over the course of the season, the group navigates universal tribulations – dating, career setbacks, miscommunications – and neighborhood-specific ones: the gentrification of Harlem, the limited availability of single Black men, the fraught dynamics of interracial dating in a mostly Black neighborhood. The show can be enjoyable – the quartet’s chemistry infectious, the twists intriguing if sometimes overdone, the numerous men reliably hot, the soundtrack hip and the outfits never boring. Lepley and Good’s chemistry is more than sufficient to root for a reunion that would definitely cause a lot of problems for a lot of people, most notably his British fianceé.
But the show sometimes feels stumped by what to do beyond calling out its representational politics. There’s something to mine in the “real life man shortage”, but the points dovetail into an awkward comparison to a tribe of women in Asia studied by Camille, and literal “yassss queen”-ing. Harlem is most interesting when the easy assumptions of righteousness are complicated: when Camille learns the gentrifying bistro she’s protesting (only to impress her new boss, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who’s disdainful of Camille’s social media fame) has hired Ian as its head chef. Or when Tye’s fair trepidation with dating a white woman collides with her fear of emotional intimacy, or Angie’s desperation to be a singer meets the reality of a pandering Get Out Broadway musical (Sunken Place song and dance included).
As a white critic, I’m wary of assessing the politics of a show unapologetically for and about Black women. But the show’s didactic handling of racism – from Camille’s monologue about the trope of the Strong Black Woman to Tye’s struggle to have callous white doctors take her abdominal pain seriously – feels oddly aimed at white audiences and, in particular, white liberal guilt. Regardless of intent or effect, the show’s overt aims at representation don’t cover for characters who, for most of the ten episodes available for review, stay stuck in the rut of a few broadly sketched characteristics.
The series’ eighth episode, set five years in the past, explores the decisions which refract through the rest of the season, offering welcome context to each woman’s consistent hangups and regrets. By season end, there’s plenty of material to grow on and from, and ample reason to give Harlem a second season to do so.
The answer to “how could representation improve in Hollywood” is often more – more characters, more shows, more storylines, more opportunities. It is undeniably a good thing that characters like Camille, Tye, Quinn and Angie be messy, alternately annoying and appealing protagonists, for female friendship to be the backbone, for a show like Harlem to exist and evolve. I just wish the development of the characters kept pace with the show’s progressive foundation.