Harlem Isn’t Exactly A New Concept, But Does It Have To Be?

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
When the trailer for Prime Video’s new series Harlem first dropped, a wave of deja vu washed over many of us. The show’s premise, pinned on the friendship of four Black women navigating life and love in the concrete jungle, seemed…familiar. Didn't we just watch a show with this exact plot in this exact setting months ago? We sure did. Yet, even though the storyline of the Tracy Oliver (Girl’s Trip) project places it in the crowded category of homegirl comedies, Harlem’s spin on the classic formula is anything but stale. Funny and self-aware, the new show does exactly what the genre was made to do: allow so many of us to feel seen. 
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Released on Prime Video on December 7, Harlem is a new dramedy series that follows four Black thirty-somethings as they take the New York City borough by storm. Like any good homegirl comedy, four friends make up this clique. (For balance, of course.) There’s Camille (Meagan Good), the ivy league adjunct professor whose love life is just as chaotic as her classroom. And fledgling fashion designer and small business owner Quinn (Grace Byers) and her passionate, (f)unemployed squatter/roommate Angie (Shoniqua Shandai). Finally, rounding out the foursome is Tye (Jerrie Johnson), a successful tech engineer creating safe spaces for queer people through a new dating app. Despite their busy schedules and very different lifestyles, this friendship circle relies on each other for almost everything, their strong connection carrying them through highs and lows. 
As a fellow New Yorker and someone who lived in Harlem for exactly four months once upon a time, I think what makes Harlem so fun is its realism. Aside from the characters’ gigantic apartments — sorry, but whose spot out here is that spacious? — the show does an excellent job of tapping into what life in NYC can look like for some professional Black women who call it home. From catching the crowded A train downtown during rush hour, to unexpectedly running into an ex at an event, to battling crippling self-doubt and having a meltdown in the middle of the street (if you know, you know), it captures a specific essence of existing in this city that you would have to experience to understand. And for Oliver, it’s a loving homage to the neighbourhood that shaped her.
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“I spent a lot of time back and forth in New York, and my best memories, my best moments romantically, creatively were inspired by the city,” Oliver shared in a recent interview with Variety. “I lived in Harlem and just thought it was just so culturally rich. I fell in love with the people, and I just felt like everyone was just so effortlessly cool [and] unapologetically who they are. I was still struggling to find myself in that period, but also I really loved the place, and it pushed me to grow.”
As fun and relatable as the show is, there’s simply no way that Harlem can escape the inevitable complaints and comparisons to other series based on similar scenarios. Just this summer, STARZ released Run the World, the Leigh Davenport and Yvette Lee Bowser (Living Single, Half and Half) collaboration that also followed four Black Harlem residents. While there are some differences between the characters and their situations — Harlem’s girls are all single, and its plot provides some important queer-while-Black representation that was noticeably absent in Run the World — their respective stories could essentially exist in the same universe. 
For some, the shows are a bit too parallel, and there is a good point to be made about the pervasiveness of this particular blueprint in Hollywood. Homegirl comedies are everywhere and have been a running theme in television and film for decades. Waiting to Exhale, Living Single, A Different World, Girlfriends, Insecure, Twenties, First Wives Club — all of these titles and so many others hinge on dynamic interpersonal relationships between Black women from different walks of life. And because they’re also often fixed in the same setting, typically unfolding in big, sprawling cities like NYC or Los Angeles, it’s easy to understand how some viewers might be experiencing a level of boredom or even burnout from this formula. We’ve seen it, in some shape or form, so many times before. 
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Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Still, in the age of the reboot, it’s actually quite rare to watch a completely new premise unfold on the screen. Whether we like it or not, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of classic storylines be retold for new audiences with modern updates, and the remake train doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. And, if we’re going to take it a step further, there is no shortage of white shows that are following the same prescription on primetime television and across streaming platforms. Steamy hospital dramas à la Grey’s Anatomy, New Amsterdam, and The Good Doctor will never not have a place on television, and even amidst the ongoing movement to defund the police, cop procedurals like CSI and Law & Order are still getting spinoff after spinoff. Even in the reality dating space, the shows are only slightly varied; we’re dating in the wilderness (Naked & Afraid of Love), dating on an island (Bachelor in Paradise and Love Island), getting engaged or married and then dating without ever seeing the person first (Love is Blind and Married at First Sight). Same recipe, different ingredients.
"I don't want to live in a world where Run The World and Harlem can't coexist." Oliver told Entertainment Weekly while discussing the perceived symmetry between the two shows. "I think that it's a sign of progress that you don't just have one show anymore that features Black women who are friends."
Photo: courtesy of Amazon studios.
If the rest of Hollywood can reuse and recycle plots and premises, Black shows can be given that same grace. Yes, Harlem is the latest in a long line of series about a group of mostly upwardly mobile, Black women living in a big city. The show isn’t meant to be reflective of every Black person’s experience — no one project can do that — but it is a reality for some of us, sprawling uptown brownstones notwithstanding. Even if it isn’t particularly relatable for everyone, Harlem at its core is what we have been asking for from Hollywood for years: a story about Black people just living their Black ass lives. No extreme racial trauma. No playing second fiddle or comedic relief to a white person. Just Black women looking good and living better. Maybe it’s just me, but I don't think that there’s such a thing as “overdone” when it comes to that.
The first season of Harlem is now available for streaming on Prime Video.

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