'Love Is_': TV Review

Not much to love.
6/19/2018

OWN's new series is an autobiographical take on the marriage between producers Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is…tediously sincere. An autobiographical reimagining of the marriage between producers Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (Girlfriends, Being Mary Jane, The Game, Black Lightning), OWN’s syrupy immersion romance Love Is__ leads with a 1990s meet-tepid between two Hollywood wannabes and then glides along like molasses, allowing low-stakes minutiae to dominate the plotting.

Due to a narrational framing device set in a future where the older couple waxes euphoric about their personal and professional achievements, the series is less a “will they or won’t they” rollercoaster than a “when they and how they” pantomimed love letter — which raises the question of why we’re watching in the first place.

If you’re allergic to earnestness, this may not be the series for you. In 1996, passionate Yasir (Will Catlett) approaches doe-eyed Nuri (Michele Weaver) at a Los Angeles cafe. His game is that he has no game; there’s no coy flirtation or burbling sexual tension between them, just pure quixotic intention on his end. Like the show itself, he is open-hearted and faith-forward — more interested in vulnerability than preening or stunting. (Both characters, like their flesh-and-blood counterparts, belong to the Nation of Islam and openly reference God.) They briefly vibe, sharing their Hollywood dreams, and then part, only to randomly reconnect a year later at a furniture store. By now, she’s an emerging TV writer on Marvin, a thinly veiled Martin-type sitcom, and he’s an unemployed screenwriter still dreaming of marquee lights. She resists, he insists and by the end of the first episode (and their first date), they’ve already said their “I love yous.” It all feels much too easy.

Watching young black visionaries navigate Hollywood — particularly during the 1990s’ wave of revolutionary black programming — would be compelling alone. So it’s all the more confusing that the show relies on a When Harry Met Sally-style documentary interview set in the present day and in 2029 to frame the storytelling. As older Nuri (Wendy Davis) rapturously monologues in the opening scene: “He blew up my world. And my plans. He unearthed the truth in me, made me take off this…this mask I’d been wearing so that you can see the real light in me. So that I could see the real light in me.” So what are we here to watch, exactly? Instead of tugging the heart strings, these interludes come off as a narcissistic (and, frankly, hubristic) bid to insert the Akils into the series even more so than they already are.

Catlett and Weaver chemically vibrate as Nuri and Yasir traverse their class distinctions and gendered expectations — Weaver in particularly radiates petulant-cute charm — but the sexuality feels intentionally impotent. (One cringe-inducing line: “All we did is dry hump!” Nuri blurts in an early scene when her mom and elderly neighbor find her in bed with a young man.) You could chalk it up to OWN’s Lifetime-lite wholesomeness, but the network’s flagship drama Queen Sugar is a raw, sensual powerhouse.

Given that we’re witnessing the origins of a real-life relationship successful upon impact, the episodes begin to depend on “tempest in a tea pot” filler plots showcasing conflicts that might be consequential in the real world but remain microscopic in TV land: multiple instances of pager drama, the trials of caring for an ex post-liposuction (yep) and two episodes devoted to whether Nuri will be able to join Yasir at a sold-out concert.

Love Is__ succeeds most in its self-aware class analysis and elucidation of life as a driven, educated black woman. Nuri and her friend/colleague Angela (Idara Victor) constantly battle the politics of misogyny on Marvin, from bosses who can’t fathom a female character having an opinion to male co-workers who try to exploit their beauty. On the other side of this spectrum, Yasir’s family and friends admonish him for being a man without a clear path. Before connecting with Nuri, his live-in ex Ruby kicks him out of the apartment for not having a job or contributing to the household. (We’re expected to see her as shrewish, but could anyone blame her for choosing security over endlessly imbuing a man with artistic mojo?)

“When you're broke, people are always waiting for you to get past that point,” older Yasir admits. “It’s hard depending on people. It’s hard being a man in the world and feeling like you've got no trinkets to prove it.” Despite their limerence, both he and Nuri must contend with the possibility that he’s using her for her money, connections and a place to stay while he’s homeless. We see Yasir suffer death by a thousand inconveniences of being poor, but ultimately, the show’s interest in fate, faith and salvation dilutes these stakes: We already know things are going to work out for them. Instead, try HBO’s Insecure, a much better (and raunchier) take on black female success and male failure to launch.

Cast: Michele Weaver, Will Catlett, Wendy Davis, Clarke Peters, Tyrone Marshall Brown, Idara Victor, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing
Creators: Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil
Premieres: 
Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (OWN)

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