'A Black Lady Sketch Show': TV Review

Immediately carves out its own worthwhile space.
8/2/2019

Robin Thede and Issa Rae deliver an energetic, funny and wonderfully distinctive new sketch show to HBO's variety lineup.

The decision to cancel The Rundown With Robin Thede in July 2018 after one season on BET remains one that mystifies me a year later. You're a network trying to evolve and expand your brand and you're going to give a genuinely trailblazing show, one of the most acclaimed shows you've ever produced — The Rundown was in my Top 10 for 2017 — only 24 episodes to establish itself? Come on! Sometimes even when ratings are low, you have to decide that certain things are worth nurturing, especially if you ever want to lure top-tier creative talent in the future. That show was a thing worth nurturing, BET.

BET's self-inflicted loss, and Thede's temporary loss, is HBO's gain.

HBO has been very aggressive in pursuing high-quality inclusive variety programming and at least attempting to let it grow, whether it's the 2 Dope Queens specials or two seasons of Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas or the utterly indescribable Random Acts of Flyness. Add to that mix, then, Thede's superb new series A Black Lady Sketch Show, a funny, provocative, consistently high-energy offering that never could have been made if BET hadn't pulled the plug on The Rundown.

Thede was part of the Donald Trump Joke Industrial Complex that fuels late-night on The Rundown. Her Trump jokes were sharper and came from a different perspective than those being told by most of her peers, but it was still in the same vicinity as the kind of reactive, headline-driven humor being churned out by at least a dozen shows in the same space. Perhaps that's why A Black Lady Sketch Show is essentially a Trump-free zone. It isn't apolitical — far from it. Its very existence in a genre that has traditionally struggled to give black women voices and visibility is already explicitly political.

On both sides of the camera, A Black Lady Sketch Show is a revolution. Joining Thede in the core cast are Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson and Gabrielle Dennis. The series, from executive producer Issa Rae, has a writing staff led by Lauren Ashley Smith and featuring Thede, Black, Akilah Green, Amber Ruffin and more. Episodes were directed by Dime Davis.

How on earth do Thede and her team find things to joke about if they're not mocking the Emmy-nominated former host of NBC's The Apprentice? Fairly easily. There are recurring characters like Thede's Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman Pre-PhD, a motivational speaker urging people to "learn to decolonialize your thoughts," and Black's Invisible Spy, an intelligence operative whose greatest gift is that she's constantly being overlooked. There are extended sketches that function as straightforward parody, like a reboot of 227 or a performance by a 1964 Motown act whose hit "Ice Cream Shop" makes an unexpected pivot from romantic to distressingly dirty. There are faux commercials and high-concept sketches like the Pose-style Basic Ball, in which the runway categories include "clinical depression," and then there's one audacious Romeo & Juliet takeoff that blends hip-hop and iambic pentameter to ambitious results.

The entire series is tied together through interstitial conversations between exaggerated versions of the four stars after some sort of apocalyptic event, a dark-yet-silly conceit that plays well with the more twisted tone of many of the show's sketches. There's almost a Twilight Zone-level of paranoia running through some of these briefs, which are helmed with genre-honoring proficiency by Davis. That world-turned-upside-down vibe is also political in its own way, a pervasive dread accompanying pervasive absurdism that extends to seemingly innocuous topics like "deciding not to wear makeup to work." Even the opening credits, a joyful lark featuring the four leading ladies as puppets, blends exuberance and unexpected violence. Through five episodes, I haven't even considered skipping through the introductory puppetry, which has a place among my favorite snippets of TV this summer.

The wide-ranging sketches give each star frequent opportunities to shine. Black, whom I've missed since she departed Full Frontal With Samantha Bee in the winter, parlays the topical excellence she honed on that TBS show to help carry the odds-and-ends conversations in the framing devices and gets to do some solid character work. Dennis, while thoroughly capable of goofiness, thrives in deceptively hard straight-woman-with-a-twist sketches. Thede is getting a kick out of the gender performativity of playing male roles in this female-driven context, and also enjoying the opportunity to throw in accents and period costuming after playing herself on her more recent platforms. And Brunson is just a remarkable spark plug, stealing sketch after sketch and standing out as a breakout among breakouts.

The guest cast on A Black Lady Sketch Show is impressive, especially when it comes to pure drop-in cameos from the likes of Angela Bassett or Gina Torres, who has one good sketch and then one marvelous outtake featured in the end-of-episode blooper reel. Rae makes multiple appearances, as does Insecure co-star Yvonne Orji and the extended A Black Lady Sketch Show features the always-welcome likes of David Alan Grier, Loretta Devine and Nicole Byer. Several guest stars made me pause my viewing for an excited acknowledgment, but none took me out of the world of the show, which is about the best you can say about a celebrity cameo.

A Black Lady Sketch Show premieres Friday, just days after IFC's Sherman's Showcase, another diversification of the sketch landscape. They could have easily been combined into a single review, but they're both good enough to have deserved separate spotlights and I hope both shows find audiences, since part of why A Black Lady Sketch Show uses "A" and not "The" in its title is because these shows should be the tip of an iceberg and not the full iceberg themselves. I still miss The Rundown, though. You blew that one, BET!

Cast: Robin Thede, Gabrielle Dennis, Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson
Creator: Robin Thede
Head writer: Lauren Ashley Smith
Director: Dime Davis
Premieres: Friday, 11 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)