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Amazon’s Harlem is familiar. The contours of Tracy Oliver’s entertaining ten-episode comedy series reliably adhere to formulae refined by other sitcoms, old and new. Like Sex and the City and Girlfriends, the show focuses on four women as they manage their romantic lives, careers and friendships. And similarly to Starz’s Run the World (also set in New York’s Black mecca) and Issa Rae’s masterwork Insecure, Harlem is retrofitted for a contemporary audience hungry for self-reflection served with a side of fantasy.
Oliver, who starred in Rae’s shrewd web series Awkward Black Girl before sharpening her pen in comedies like Girls Trip and Little, wanted Harlem to fill a gap: Stories about Black female friendships were few and far between, especially those concentrating on the messiness typical of one’s 30s. By that metric, the show, which will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the recent Run the World, succeeds: The straightforward humor, enviable wardrobes, winks to previous sitcoms and questionable character antics are likely to keep many viewers hooked.
Camille (Meagan Good), an anxious adjunct anthropology professor at Columbia University, anchors the show, and her lectures, which she delivers with aplomb to bleary-eyed collegians, thematically steer each episode. Her friends are an assorted crew assembled in college. Now in their 30s, the women have maintained a sacrosanct bond. Quinn (Grace Byers) is a former banker turned designer who regularly asks her parents for money to keep her boutique afloat. She lives with Angie (Shoniquia Shandai), a brash singer who has been out of a job since her record label dumped her five years ago. Tye (Jerrie Johnson) is, by conventional standards, the most successful of the group. She founded a popular app for “queer people of color” and has ascended fiscally and socially. Her wardrobe is, quite frankly, to die for.
The quartet convene over small bites and drinks in a stylish Harlem restaurant whose location becomes one of the show’s greater mysteries. Despite its title, Harlem shockingly underutilizes, and sometimes misuses, its setting. During the first episode’s opening sequence, Camille, sporting an oxblood red coat, struts across a sliver of campus that clearly belongs to City College and not Columbia University, where she teaches. Narrative choices, like the anti-gentrification protests against the closure of a beloved fictional local bar, would be easier to buy into if the show went beyond requisite shots of brownstone-lined blocks and lushly decorated interiors.
Harlem’s characters, thankfully, fare better than its locales. Camille, Quinn, Angie and Tye add to the current offering of TV shows reflecting the strength of Black women’s friendships as well as the turbulence of modern living. The series opens with Camille, pitched to viewers as a kind of Cinderella with a not-so-happy ending, confronting uncomfortable truths: Her path from adjunct to full-time tenure-track professor is not as guaranteed as she assumed, and Ian (Tyler Lepley), the man she dumped five years ago to pursue her dreams, has moved back to New York. Should she leave a prestigious workplace that ultimately does not value her? Is it worth it to reconnect with her ex, who suspiciously looks like Drake? She honestly has no idea.
Good, known for her work in Think Like a Man and Deception, leans into her new role, fully embodying an awkward adjunct prone to cringey decision-making. She’s at her best when pit against veteran comedians like Whoopi Goldberg, who makes a delicious guest appearance as an adversarial new member of Columbia’s faculty.
While Camille scrambles to reorder her life, her friends wrestle with similar troubles in career and love. Quinn, prone to being catfished, struggles as a single hopeless romantic. When she’s not dodging sketchy Tinder dates, she’s battling her mother (Jasmine Guy) who doesn’t believe in her daughter’s newfound passion for design. Byers is compelling, giving Quinn dimension beyond the ditzy, rich friend. Up there with the Empire alum is the flawless Shandai, whose Angie adds levity to the group dynamic, but not at the expense of a proper storyline. Her arc — which includes auditioning for the musical version of Get Out and wondering how much of herself she must sacrifice to be a star — is one I’m excited to see develop.
If there’s a key difference between Harlem and its predecessors and even contemporaries, it’s most clearly seen via Tye, a cagey gay startup founder who must confront the emotional roots of her inconsistent dating life. Her story teeters, but even in the most melodramatic moments the show attempts to explore her character and relationships earnestly. Johnson imbues Tye with an infectious charm, balancing the CEO’s grittiness and wry humor with more sensitive and quiet elements of her personality.
Harlem feels most labored in its dialogue, which sometimes reveals a painful awareness of an audience. When conversations drift away from the specificity of the four friends’ dynamic, the show falls into the trap of overly expository writing. “West Indians are a beautifully complex and diverse people, whose cultural influence should be celebrated, not mocked, especially by fellow Diasporians,” Quinn quips at Angie when the latter impersonates a Jamaican nanny to get a gig. None of what she says is untrue, but its blunt insertion makes it feel like a public service announcement instead of a natural part of the interactive flow.
For most viewers, the show’s shortcomings will be forgiven in the bigger picture of what it does offer: Four new characters whom they can gossip and argue about in group texts. As Insecure comes to an end, Harlem provides those of us not ready to let go with a slightly softer landing.
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