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Amazon's Harlem surpasses Sex and the City in key ways

  • "The Black women of Harlem, a 10-episode streaming comedy premiering Friday on Amazon, are decades younger than — and a few zip codes apart from — Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte," says Lorraine Ali. "...But they still eloquently saunter and drunkenly stumble in the stilettoed footsteps of those 20th century, Cosmopolitan-sipping pioneers. The question is whether adjunct anthropology professor Camille (Meagan Good); successful queer dating app creator Tye (Jerrie Johnson); trust-fund fashion designer Quinn (Grace Byers); and out-of-work singer-actor Angie (Shoniqua Shandai) have anything to add to the sisterhood-in-the-city playbook. The answer: absolutely, though the clunky pilot episode of Harlem may lead you to believe otherwise. The characters at first appear cast from the very mold used by HBO more than 20 years ago: Camille is the responsible one who overthinks things, pining after her ex and making bad choices when she second-guesses herself. (She is also, in a move that can’t help but call to mind Carrie Bradshaw, the series’ voiceover.) Tye is a disciplined, confident businesswoman with a commitment problem. Quinn still openly believes in true love, even in the world of scammy dating apps. And Angie has no edit button, especially when talking about men, sex, men and more sex. But Harlem, created by Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver, eventually has much more to offer than a modern Black overlay on a beloved but very white series. Each character grows more interesting as the series proceeds thanks to strong character development and sharp writing, and the chemistry among performers becomes the bond that carries the show as the women become entangled in each other’s respective relationship disasters and work dilemmas....It also underscores the limitations of SATC’s whitewashed New York: Some of Harlem’s most fascinating conversations and scenarios deal with the characters’ varying, and anything but static, ideas of Blackness — culturally, personally, comically. And the gentrification of Harlem is part of the story here too...But Harlem doesn’t drown in its social consciousness, either. Camille’s excited that the new head of her department at Columbia is a Black woman (Whoopi Goldberg) until she finds that she has to jump through just as many — if not more —hoops to impress her."


    • Harlem succeeds at filling a gap for stories about Black female friendships, especially those concentrating on the messiness typical of one’s 30s: "The straightforward humor, enviable wardrobes, winks to previous sitcoms and questionable character antics are likely to keep many viewers hooked," says Lovia Gyarkye. But, Gyarkye adds, "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."
    • Harlem feels full formed from the get-go: "It's a sharp, funny comedy about women who thrive, fail, and survive in the midst of our dysfunctional world," says Kristen Baldwin. "Like most millennials, Camille and her friends are obsessed with pop culture, and Harlem delivers some true show-within-the-show brilliance." Baldwin adds: "Unlike Sex and the City, which took several episodes to find its footing, Harlem feels fully formed from the outset. Some of the humor is so smart, my first reaction wasn't to laugh, but to marvel: Damn, that's good."
    • Harlem distinguishes itself by featuring an intriguing main lesbian character in Jerrie Johnson's Tye: Tye "quickly becomes one of the show’s most compelling thanks to Johnson’s charismatic performance," says Caroline Framke. "Tye’s smart and confident in her abilities, but has a big enough chip on her shoulder to keep her from completely owning her every instinct. And while everyone in Harlem is at a crossroads of sorts, as the creator of a dating app exclusively for queer people of color, Tye’s on the edge of the kind of success that could set her up for life. That Tye’s apparently neglected to weave queer people of color into her own life outside of sex and romance is a strange and glaring aspect of her life that somehow never comes up — but she’s also far from the first gay character on TV to have an entirely straight group of friends, so it’s not entirely a surprise, either. Good, meanwhile, does the most she can with Camille, a character that’s ostensibly the glue of the group but is by far the least distinct. Even as her voiceovers bookend every episode, Camille turning her anthropological lens on the rom-com exploits around her doesn’t quite work. (The pilot’s motif of having Camille aspire to be like a member of the matriarchal Mosuo clan, featuring a mute Asian woman poking into frame whenever she thinks about it, is a particularly weird and clunky device that does the rest of the episode no real favors.) Though Camille’s storylines are most interesting when Good gets to act opposite Whoop Goldberg as Camille’s discerning new boss, Harlem otherwise works best when following her friends, each of whom feels more sharply drawn."
    • It's hard not to think about Insecure when watching Harlem: "I don’t want to start this review by talking about Insecure, Issa Rae’s seminal HBO comedy about four Black twenty-to-thirtysomethings in LA that broke ground for Black female friendship onscreen and built a pipeline for Black creatives off it," says Adrian Horton. "Amazon’s Harlem, a 10-episode series about four Black thirtysomethings in the storied New York neighborhood created by Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver, should be measured on its own merits. But it’s hard not to map one on to the other, from buzzy soundtrack to stylish wardrobes to similar themes – the lingering question of an ex who’s maybe or maybe not moved on, dating apps, annoying white people, parental pressure. Insecure echoes in the dynamics of the Harlem group: the self-involved but endearing protagonist, the careerist afraid of being vulnerable, the neurotic romantic, the ribald and unapologetic fount of comic relief. Which is not to say Harlem is simply a reset of Insecure in New York; the half-hour series is an easy, sometimes fun and occasionally intriguing watch that treads the still undervalued ground of single women in their 30s. But with characters whose bits wear thin, punchlines that frequently boil down to horniness and explanations of racist dynamics that feel pulled from an Instagram slideshow, Harlem often tests the limits of representation as justification."
    • Harlem combines elements of Girlfriends, Sex and the City and Living Single -- and features sharp, fun interplay between its four formidable leads: “Harlem is bursting with other themes — the depleting Black landscape of Harlem, sexual awakenings, hair care, and the ways Black creatives are often forced to sacrifice their scruples for a chance at success — but leaves enough juicy meat on the bone for a possible second," says Robert Daniels. "It accomplishes all of these challenges while putting on a display of lavish costumes, detailed, colorful production designs — relying on teals, pastel pinks, and yellows — and allowing the luminousness of Black skin to be captured. Despite some early slip-ups, Oliver’s Harlem resonates with fun, heart, verve, and the feeling of togetherness, inherent in both the neighborhood and the Black women it supports."
    • Harlem manages to be both a breezy good time and a complex character study of four modern Black women chasing their dreams in the city that never sleeps: "Although its blueprints stem from 2000s-era shows like Girlfriends and Sex and the City, Oliver’s show finds itself on more grounded, less unattainable footing," says Marya E. Gates. "Shooting on location around Harlem gives the series a lived-in feel, with residents of the area likely to spot not just landmarks but also local favorites as well. Like Carrie’s column voiceover in Sex and the City, each episode of Harlem begins with one of Camille’s lectures from her class entitled Anthropology of Sex and Love, attempting to extract lessons from the past and apply them to contemporary situations. In the pilot, directed by Malcolm D. Lee, Camille’s lecture focuses on the Mosuo tribe in the Himalayas. Governed by women, she describes them as a 'tribe of unbreakable sisters.' This serves as the theme of the episode, as well as the show’s overarching message: Black women are the strongest when they are supported by each other."
    • Harlem appealed to Meagan Good because she could see herself in the show: “The thing that I love most about (Harlem) is… some of the shows that I’ve watched over the years, I relate to as a Black woman, but I don’t actually see myself,” Good explains. “And sometimes, I didn’t necessarily see my friend group, like where I grew up and some of the conversations that we were having. So when I read Harlem, I was like, ‘Oh my God. There’s so much of me in Camille.’ There’s so much I could see in each character, not just myself, but my friend group.”
    • Harlem is Tracy Oliver's most personal project: “I wrote it before Girls Trip came out," she says. "This is why this is such a passion project and so close to me. I wrote this for free; I wrote this because I had to — at that moment there was just something in me that needed to write something so personal." In Harlem, Meagan Good's Camille is the character who is most modeled after Oliver’s own life, both personally and professionally. “With Camille and myself as well, I really thought that everything would just work out the way you wanted — and I don’t know where that entitlement came from because my mom, especially, is not very nice,” Oliver says with a laugh. “She was always a realist and never romanticized anything, so I truly don’t know where I got this idea from. Maybe getting lost in rom-coms. I really thought I was going to have a Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, except Black, existence. And it blew my mind when it was imploding so epically.”

    TOPICS: Harlem, Amazon Prime Video, Grace Byers, Jerrie Johnson, Meagan Good, Shoniqua Shandai, Tracy Oliver