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If there’s any doubt of the cultural hold that Sex and the City continues to exert 17 years after its final episode, look no further than the new Starz comedy Run the World. Set in Harlem, creator Leigh Davenport’s summer strut of a series follows four 30-something Black professionals: lifelong best friends with roots in the South, clothes for every conceivable event and plans for nothing short of world domination. Like its HBO predecessor (and that show’s Black-centric contemporary, Girlfriends), Run the World marries aspirational gloss with emotional groundedness to familiar but appealing effect.
There’s the lovelorn writer, Ella (Andrea Bordeaux), who finds herself starting at a digital tabloid after her second book’s flop and refers to her elusive love interest, Anderson (Nick Sagar), as her Big. “No, he’s not,” retorts plain-spoken doctoral student Sondi (Corbin Reid). “Big was tall, rich and had a driver.” Prim, perfectionistic Whitney (Amber Stevens West) — a banker engaged to a Nigerian American doctor (Tosin Morohunfola) — is a spiritual cousin of Sex and the City’s Charlotte. But like Sondi, delightfully unfiltered marketing exec Renee (Bresha Webb) has no analogue in the earlier show. Even more refreshingly, Davenport and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser lean less on archetypes than on thorny relationships to flesh out their foursome.
In another key departure from the HBO touchstone, Run the World’s core quartet actually feel like women in their thirties. There’s plenty of drinking, clubbing, hooking up and oversharing about their sex lives — including an erotic mishap that ends in pink eye. But these women are also career-oriented, socially conscious and struggling with marital disappointments, serious pre-wedding doubts and childcare burdens.
The eight episodes in the first season are heavily serialized and densely packed, foregrounding each woman’s unique set of romantic troubles with her partner. It’s hard to pick a standout, since they’re all compelling in their own way: Ella’s irresistible attraction to an ex who abandoned her at her lowest some years ago; Sondi’s fears that she’ll be taken less seriously as a scholar if it’s revealed that she’s in a relationship with her professor (Stephen Bishop); Whitney’s anxiety spiral about not having lived enough before getting married; and Renee’s impending divorce to her layabout husband (Jay Ross), who’s no longer interested in the power-couple lifestyle they’d been building toward.
Like the Beyoncé song that gives the series its title, there’s an anthemic quality to Run the World. A voracious hedonism — what Freud called the pleasure principle — drives much of the show, one purpose of which is to declare: This is how we have fun. The series doesn’t approach Harlem like a playground in the way Sex and the City treated the rest of Manhattan, but there’s a sense of relaxed ease in taking in all that the culturally rich neighborhood has to offer, as the women bounce between the bar, the boardroom and the ballet. Even when the quartet are on the outs — as they are in the flashback-filled sixth episode, with a winsomely cranky Rosie O’Donnell playing all four women’s (highly improbable) therapist — a sense of solidarity unites the friends, which is only enriched by the cast’s energetic chemistry.
That camaraderie abounds in their racially inflected discussions about sex too: white cocks versus black dicks, the role of colorism in their dating lives, why porn featuring Black actors often bums them out. Fizzy yet substantial, Run the World offers exactly the feeling you’d want while catching up with an old friend over cocktails: It’s giddy, gossipy and gladdening.
Cast: Amber Stevens West, Andrea Bordeaux, Bresha Webb, Corbin Reid, Tosin Morohunfola, Stephen Bishop
Creator: Leigh Davenport
Showrunner: Yvette Lee Bowser
Airdate: 8:30 p.m. Sunday, May 16 (Starz)
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