Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Happy 30th Living Single: Still True Blue and Tight Like Glue

There were a plethora of norms that the pandemic of 2020 immediately stripped out of our lives like daily work commutes and regular trips to our barbers and beauticians. And then there were new norms that crept into our routine out of necessity and the need for connection like DoorDash deliveries and living room dance parties courtesy of rapper-DJ D-Nice's Club Quarantine on Instagram. But then there were those daily habits that sustained us and remained with us long after we removed our masks and ventured from our homes to re-socialize with family and friends. For me, that habit was "meeting up" with Khadijah, Regine, Maxine, Synclaire, Overton, and Kyle, for a few laughs every morning while I drank my coffee and checked work e-mail: a routine that I gleefully continue til this day.

August 22nd marked the 30th anniversary of the hip, urban, sitcom created by writer/producer Yvette Lee Bowser that followed the fictional lives of six black 20-something Brooklynites played by Queen Latifah (Khadijah James), Kim Fields (Regine Hunter), Erika Alexander (Maxine Shaw), Kim Coles (Synclaire James), John Henton (Overton Wakefield Jones), and T.C. Carson (Kyle Barker), as they navigated the high and lows of life, love, and careers.

When the sitcom debuted in '93, I was a bright-eyed, twenty-year-old heading into my junior year at historic Howard University as a print journalism major. With the leading character, Khadijah James, portraying a Howard alum, and the creator and editor of the fictitious Flava Magazine, you'd think the show would have resonated with me more during that time than it does now. However, despite seeing every episode during its original television run, the appreciation I held for the series then does not compare to the admiration I hold for it now. Much like hindsight being 20/20, it is in my adulthood that I have discovered how far ahead of its time the series was in portraying us as young attorneys, stock brokers, business owners, and boutique buyers, all while tackling issues that would not come to the forefront of national debates until decades later. 

There was the episode on hair discrimination long before the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hair style and hair texture, was enacted in California in 2019. There was the episode on same-sex marriage before the 2015 Supreme Court Law made such unions legal in all 50 states. And there was the episode on black mental health and the importance of therapy long before social media posts and podcasts began to remind us daily of its relevant necessity in our community. But it was also a plethora of other ground-breaking topics the show would take on such as reverse female-to-male sexual harassment; family planning via artificial insemination; and the fears often associated with mammaplasty (also known as breast augmentation/surgery) that would quickly set the show apart from its contemporaries' storylines. And let's not forget those subtle gems like casting Queen Latifah and Kim Field's real-life mothers as their characters' mothers or the delightful laundry list of cameos from entertainers and athletes that spanned generations from Flip Wilson to Jim Brown to Eartha Kitt to TLC to Montell Jordan to Heavy D to Grant Hill to Alonzo Mourning to Cheryl Miller to Shemar Moore to Terrance Howard to Nia Long to Arsenio Hall...just to name a few! 

And then there was the Afro-centrism that was always on full display courtesy of natural hairstyles, artwork, artifacts, and fashion, despite character Regine displaying an ever-evolving wig collection that would've made rapper Lil' Kim envious during that time. And just as noteworthy, would be such episodes as seasons five's "Forgive Us Our Trespasses" that would be the first since the 1970's "Good Times" that toyed with the discussion and depiction of "Black Jesus," in a role masterfully played by The Best Man's Harold Perrineau as the Savior himself. But of all of the first-to-do-it moments Living Single could plant its flag on, most notably would be the one that gave its audience the opportunity to participate in story writing by allowing viewers to decide how the episode should end.

When new brownstone tenant, Hamilton, played by another Best Man alum, Morris Chestnut, guest starred in season one's two-part episode "Love Thy Neighbor," viewers were asked to call a toll-free number and vote for Khadijah, Regine, or Maxine to be selected as his paramour (spoiler alert: the highest number of votes were for Khadijah). Yet it remains my favorite episode due in part to character Khadijah breaking television's third wall and stating to the viewing audience, "you did this to me..." at the conclusion of the episode and after to what turned out to be a less than enjoyable date with Hamilton. Today, the episode continues to run, without the call-in option of course, which makes Latifah's response the best inside joke ever for us day-one fans who know exactly what she's talking about but which probably still leaves newer viewers of the series perplexed. 

Of course the series, which is as beloved now as it was then, was not without its hiccups: though Synclaire (Kim Coles) and building handyman Overton (John Henton) would be the series' beloved series' couple, it was Fields and Henton who were a real life couple "on the low" during season one, which fizzled before season two; and later Fields and Carson, who played investment banker Kyle Barker, would leave the show before the series' end, and be replaced by actor Mel Jackson to try and fill the void. In a later interview, Fields would suggest that due to stress around her divorce, she departed the show early to focus on her mental health. However, Carson would return for the final two episodes of the series, in which it would be revealed that his character--thanks to Maxine being artificially inseminated at the clinic where he donated his sperm--would become a father and the two would finally become an official couple after four seasons of an on again/off again comically, tumultuous love affair.
But hiccups aside, the series would make its own mark in television history, while being rumored to spark the creation of one of television's more celebrated white sitcoms, "Friends" (if you know, you know ;-), and would serve as a springboard for further propelling the show's actors into careers on the big screen, on Broadway, on comedy stages, and even behind the camera. And on a personal note, it would also further the career of my very own cousin, Charles Penland, who landed the leading role in season one/episode two's "I'll Take Your Man," as the beau in the center of a love triangle with Regine and Maxine, giving me and my family our very own personal connection to the beloved sitcom forever.

Ultimately, Living Single would be that first mirror many of us Gen X'ers, in particular black women, would have held up to us in an authentic, comical, and fashionably stunning way while we navigated our own friendships, careers, and relationships. In fact, creator Bowser stated in a recent interview reflecting on the show's impact "I wanted to create a series that centered on and celebrated women," she said. "When you create something that is intended to be a love letter, and you pour love into it over time, what I've found is that you continue to get love back over an extended and unexpected period of time." Which is why it's safe to say that even 30 years later, Living Single continues to be one of our great American love stories for the ways it entertained and educated us, and remained unapologetic in how it centered and celebrated blackness--and looked damn fly all while doing so. There's no denying that in a 90s kind of world, we were blessed to have our girls--and guys--and the creation that would make Living Single the black national treasure that it was and continues to be today. 

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