There’s no denying the excellence of the standalone skits on A Black Lady Sketch Show. When Angela Bassett runs a support group for bad bitches or series regular Ashley Nicole Black realizes she’s not the only "invisible spy" trading on the fact that culture ignores big women, the series proves it has something uniquely hilarious to say. It's segments like these that get shared on social media and earn approving shout-outs from even those they mock. It's this kind of attention has kept the show's first season in the public consciousness, and no doubt informed HBO’s decision to renew the show for a second season ahead of this week's Season 1 finale.
But the series’ true heart may be in its long game.
This year, there’s been a full-season arc in which the four main cast members -- Black, Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis, and series creator Robin Thede -- are having a boozy sleepover. They appear several times an episode, discussing everything from snack preferences to Uno rules to the problematic pop stars they just can’t quit. It’s like eavesdropping on the country’s funniest slumber party.
Except, oh yeah, it’s happening in the middle of a nuclear apocalypse. While the gang is talking about Ginuwine’s sex appeal or the best way to protect their hair while they sleep, the world is (literally) going to hell. But they barely seem bothered! Sure, there are oblique references to the mushroom cloud outside and the stash of frozen sperm in the freezer (presumably to help the ladies repopulate the planet), but they get more agitated when Quinta says Britney Spears’ version of “My Prerogative” is better than Bobby Brown’s.
This creates a disorienting thrill. What’s happening with these interludes? Are they a critique of how we ignore the catastrophes outside our door in favor of frivolous nonsense? Or are they a celebration of being resiliently joyous in the face of global disaster? Or are they just a goof created by artists with surreal senses of humor?
It could be all of the above. What makes this arc so satisfying is that the show refuses to decipher it for us. So far at least, there hasn't been a moral to the story or a thesis statement -- just killer jokes and the tacit assertion that this scenario is a part of the show’s investigation of black women’s lives. Beyond that, we’re trusted to make sense of the apocalypse for ourselves.
This aligns A Black Lady Sketch Show with Los Espookys, the sitcom about “professional haunters” that HBO also aired on Friday nights this year. Both series are strange, smart, and funny. They both blend incisive commentary with buoyant goofiness, and show that HBO is seriously committed to adventurous comedy. And since both shows are coming back next year, we’ll get the benefit of seeing how they build on their early, idiosyncratic successes.
A Black Lady Sketch Show airs its Season 1 finale Friday September 5 at 11:00 PM ET on HBO.
Mark Blankenship is a critic and reporter who has contributed to The New York Times, Variety, and many others. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.