SPOILER ALERT: This list is the perfect reason to binge-watch your favorite Black television shows over the holiday break.
How full is your DVR? Are you all caught up on your favorite shows?
In 2016, Black dramas and comedies captivated viewers with original stories accurately portraying what it feels like to be Black in America. The abundance of Black faces, on both sides of the camera, has led to a new, more diverse television landscape.
Whether you watched all, some, or none of the hit TV this year, you definitely saw someone talk about it on your timeline. This year, the conversations (and in some case arguments) surrounding situations we saw on television filled a void that we never knew existed. We now have a forum to have honest conversations — from criminal justice reform to sexuality — thanks to the thoughtful and genuine depictions of our unique culture by our favorite fictional characters.
These are five topics that Black television tackled perfectly in 2016.
1- The Criminal Justice System
Atlanta’s second episode (Streets on Lock) gave us a claustrophobic look at being “in the system” from Earn and PaperBoi’s point of view. Episode seven (B.A.N.) painted a picture of police brutality in the form of an animated cereal commercial and the season finale (The Jacket) casually places a fatal police shooting of an unarmed man as an obstacle in our protagonists quest to find his lost jacket.
In Empire’s second episode of season three (Sin That Amends) Andre is wrongfully arrested after being accused of trespassing on his own property. The Wharton Business graduate is forced to deal with the ramifications of being “in the system," ramifications that are felt by the whole family throughout the season. Andre is forced to see that his Ivy League education doesn’t shield him from racial injustice.
In its 10th episode (So Far) Queen Sugar displays the heart-wrenching struggle of Ralph Angel, overcoming the collateral damage of incarceration. Kofi Siriboe’s portrayal of a father legally unable to sign a permission slip for his son to go to the zoo had men everywhere reaching for the tissue.
2- Mental Health
Empire season 3 wins for its diverse depiction of mental illness with multiple characters. Andre suffers from bipolar disorder, Jamal from PTSD, and Grandma Lyon presumably has some form of paranoid schizophrenia. The stigma around mental illness is ever present in the form of an ignorant Lucious Lyon and mirrors some of the conversations we’ve seen in the media surrounding the mental health of real musicians like Kid Cudi and Kanye West.
On Insecure’s penultimate episode (Real as F**k), Molly is approached by an old friend who sincerely boasts about the benefits of therapy. Molly is repulsed by the very idea and seeks out Issa to join in on her ridicule of the notion. We see our first major rift in Molly and Issa’s friendship when Issa suggests that therapy could actually be beneficial to her.
The Starz series Survivor’s Remorse, is centered around the family of basketball star Cam Calloway. Cam’s sister M-Chuck, played by Erica Ash, is forced to go to therapy or face assault charges. Through her therapy sessions, we peel back the layers of M-Chuck’s outrageous personality and survey some of the pain that haunts the Calloway family’s past. The biggest opponent to M-Chuck’s therapy sessions is her mother Cassie, whose resistance is a product of her safeguarding her own demons.
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3- Sexual Fluidity
The most talked about storyline — before Lawrence knocked the breaks off of the bank teller in the season finale — was Jared’s supposed sexual ambiguity in Insecure’s sixth episode (Guilty as F**k). Jared nonchalantly reveals to Molly that he once had a sexual encounter with another man. Molly, in her confusion, turns to her friends for advice — advice that ranged from ignorant to informative. In the end Molly decides to dump Jared, but was it the right decision?
What started as a awkwardly relatable situation, sitting in between two people having a private conversation, ended with a exposition on transphobia and sexual fluidity on episode two of Atlanta (Streets on Lock). When one of the inmates realizes the ex he’s been flirting with is a transgender woman, he erupts into a violent homophobic diatribe. Earn unsuccessfully tries to calm him down by telling him “sexuality is a spectrum”.
Though he’s only dated men in season three, we’ve seen Jamal Lyon span the sexual spectrum on Empire. In season two episode nine (Sinned Against) Jamal faced ridicule from the LGBTQ community after he shared a passionate kiss with Skye Summers, played by Alicia Keys. We’ve also seen Serayah’s character, Tiana, date both men and women. Perhaps bigger than any individual storyline is Lee Daniels choice to use his characters to combat heteronormative beliefs.
Bow and Dre are concerned about their youngest son’s future in Blackish season three episode six (Jack Of All Trades) when a career test predicts Jack will be a “member of a unionized group of skilled laborers." This episode dives into the idea of the American dream and the divide between blue-collar and white-collar workers as Andre and Pop’s views on the subject clash. It’s deep while never losing the levity that keeps Blackish successful.
Both Atlanta and Survivors Remorse featured episodes where our favorite characters are forced to navigate the unfamiliar waters of Atlanta’s black elite. Attempting to leverage a Juneteenth party invitation into a successful career opportunity, Earn and Van play husband and wife in a bizarre look at the upper class in Atlanta episode nine (Juneteenth). The third episode (The Thank-You Note) of the third season of Survivor’s Remorse features Reggie and Missy, played by RonReaco Lee and Teyonnah Parris, meeting an affluent Atlanta couple and navigating the rules of etiquette in the upper class. Apparently “Thank You” notes are really important.
The rocky road with Jared and Molly on Insecure began for her when she publically discovered Jared didn’t go to college in episode three (Racist as F**k). The show throws lowkey shade at Enterprise and Best Buy, painting them as undesirable jobs and showing how we can discriminate against our own within the community.
Not sure why that is, I’ve heard Best Buy & Enterprise have great a benefits package.
5- Messy Relationships
Relationships are messy. There aren’t a lot of #relationshipgoals coming from our favorite TV couples lately. But let’s be honest, the messy ones are the most fun to watch. In Power’s third season, the saga between Tasha, Ghost, and Angela took another turn. Tasha let Ghost back into her bed for one night, but what did that reconciliation mean? Tasha and Ghost will be forever linked by the three kids they have together and their criminal enterprise. Will she be there to support Ghost now that Angela is determined to put him away? Call me skeptical but I doubt we’ve really seen the last sex scene between Ghost and Angela? #season4conjugalvisit
Earn and Van on Atlanta play house but are not together. They have a daughter and habitually live together, but their situation is unique to the others in its honesty. They don’t lie to each other, but it’s no less hurtful. Earn is visibly shaken by the fact that Van is dating other men. Glover ends the season with some hope for this messy relationship. This is probably the “situationship” with the most potential to improve.
And while we’re speaking of honesty, the mess that was Issa and Lawrence began unraveling in the season premiere when Issa kissed Daniel. Her actions may have been dishonest, but are they technically considered cheating? A modern take on the whole “we were on a break” story from Friends, Issa had broken up with Lawrence. Whether he knew it or not is up for debate, but Issa was definitely operating like a single woman. Later, Lawrence asks Issa if she had sex with Daniel more than once. What may seem like an innocuous question is really a look into the psyche of a man dealing with hurt. Men process pain differently. Painting a vivid picture of Issa’s betrayal to fuel his rage makes it easier for Lawrence to ignore the love he still has for her. The decision to sleep with Tasha the bank teller was motivated by pure anger and frustration. Which leaves the door open for the messy reconciliation we’re all expecting in season 2.