“Harlem” Is a Show That You Sure Could Watch This Weekend

We’ve officially entered that part of the year where time has stopped mattering and everything is a downhill sleigh until the New Year (or completely frozen in stasis until the New Year, like I said time is fake). So I don’t know your weekend plans! I don’t know if you’ve traveled home already and could use a vaguely gay show to binge while you hide out from your bio family and miss your crew; I don’t know if you’ve already cancelled everything due to the Omarion Omicron variant and could use a short binge to get you through the weekend while you eat every Christmas cookie in the house; hell I don’t know if you have to do a double shift at your job and are looking for something you can watch on your phone to keep company — but what I do know is that Harlem, the new Black women’s friendship comedy that premiered two weeks ago on Amazon Prime with a surprisingly large amount of gays, could be a show that you watch.

Did I necessarily love Harlem? I did not.

Did I at least enjoy the main lesbian character? I did not! (Though if it helps, there is a second, more unexpected, bisexual storyline that develops over the season that I got into much more).

Ok but did I hate it enough to write a detailed scathing critique? And once again, I did not!

Harlem is a show that exists.

And sometimes, like when it’s Saturday morning less than seven days from the biggest holigay period of the year that’s filled with the various pressures of maskless gatherings and gift giving and for so many of us the twin pressures of turning ourselves into less of who we are so we can “go home” in the first place, all against the backdrop of entering — eL OH eL — a global pandemic that just got picked up for its third year like it’s a breakout drama on Netflix and epic waves of climate change that has left us at 70 degrees in December, in wait for it, Michigan!!

I dunno, in a situation like that, for a casual and completely random example — then having a show that merely exists is enough.

Tye in Harlem

Hahahaahaha. The world is ending.

Ok so the plot! Harlem follows four single friends in their 30s as they navigate careers and love, which isn’t recreating the wheel here, so you know the deal. Meagan Good, a longtime master of romantic comedy, is the lead of the crew, Camille. Grace Byers (Boo Boo Kitty, if you remember Empire) is a small business owner trying to step out of her wealthy mother’s shadow. Shoniqua Shandai never met a one-liner she couldn’t love as Angie. For our very explicit gay needs, there is Jerrie Johnson as Tye and much like the show itself, Tye is a character that… exists.

(Hey! Maybe I’m being too harsh! She has a speech about compulsory heterosexuality in episode eight that I was here for. Good for Tye, out here existing.)

There’s a few classic cameos of Black Hollywood throughout, but none more stunning than EGOT-GOAT Whoopi Goldberg, who sometimes carries the entire production on the back of her effortless comic timing. Plus, if you squint enough and believe in the reason for the season, the whole show has an aesthetically pleasing “it’s Christmas without telling me it’s Christmas vibe” with lots of twinkling lights, enviable coats, and an entire episode dedicated to the Winter Solstice (#gay).

To be honest with you, the first time I watched Harlem I thought I hated it. But I refused to believe that Tracy Oliver (you know that you love her without knowing it because she wrote Girl’s Trip) could do me wrong like that, so I watched it again. Somewhere between episodes four-six I gave into charm and once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. There are more than it’s fair share of cringe moments, especially when the show tries to engage in hot topics that come across more like a misread Twitter feed than anything approaching genuine dialogue between Black people (cancel culture, “woke,” #MeToo, barbershop misogyny, the alarming amount of Black women who have fibroids, all Black Twitter topics of some point in the last two years, are present and none of it goes down easy). As I mentioned earlier, pretty much everything about Tye — the main lesbian — rubbed me the wrong way, at its worst it felt like the writers had never actually met a Black masc person in their life and instead watched Lena Waithe clips on YouTube.

BUT! The friendship between the core four is warm and believable. And because it’s written by Tracy Oliver, the humor is raunchy and plentiful in really great ways. The quieter, surprise queer storyline is enjoyable. Maybe it’s some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, but I ended up having a good time. I decorated my apartment for Christmas and Harlem made confident background noise. When it’s done, you might wish you had just put on a rerun of Girlfriends or Living Single instead? Sure, you probably will, but much respect to #1 haver of 90s lesbian TV energy Khadijah James herself, none of those shows had a queer main character now did they?

In conclusion, three years ago (but emotionally, a million years ago) we wrote an article bravely titled Make It Gay, You Cowards — and in that article I complained about Issa Rae’s Insecure, which coincidentally is going off into its sunset this very month. I very chill wrote in all caps, “IT MAKES NO SENSE THAT NONE OF THE BLACK GIRLS ON INSECURE ARE GAY.” It’s gobsmacking that in such a short period of time, we’ve moved ahead so quickly with Black queer storytelling on television (with miles to go before we sleep) that I can point to Harlem’s mostly pleasant mediocrity and say, “it’s fine.”

It’s fine. It’s completely fine. You can watch it this weekend. It will only hurt a little. It’s fine.

Dog in fire says "This is Fine"


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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 408 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. CARMEN!!!! I have been waiting for a post about this show since it came out girl, thank you for delivering! To say that this show has “Cringe Moments” is an understatement in the extreme. At first I was swept away by Tye’s Black power lesbian style, (can we please get a fashion break down of Black power stemmes BTW? Sorry, not you, Bette Porter) the fierce makeup, the hair cut, those stunning suits!!! And that masc on masc sex scene in the beginning had me laughing out loud!

    But that was the only thing that felt genuine unfortunately… Tye taking a picture down her pants in public… to sext a new girl… that was not it. Tye showing off her head game by flicking her tongue out in between her fingers while at the table…. YIKES. WTF is writing this shit???? I only got through episode two and I might give the show another try on your recommendation, but this representation I almost wish didn’t exist.

    • Ok but listen tho! I found the first two episodes to be the worst, so I completely understand getting off the train there. If you give it a second try (and I’m not at all saying you should!) I’ve learned that the key is to keep the bar of expectation on the floor, once I decided I already didn’t like it, ironically that opened up at least some room for it to surprise me.

      I will say my original version of this piece had the line “it’s kinda hard when your least favorite character in the show is also the lesbian” 😞 SO MUCH ABOUT TYE MADE NO SENSE AT ALL!!!! And like you said, so offensive. They mellow out some of the offensive parts as the season goes but then new equally perplexing plot choices come instead. Fun!

  2. Most of the storylines I could’ve truly dealt without, but these are the ones I related to wholeheartedly (Note: I’ve gotta stop writing these long ass comments on this site. I blame you, Carmen):

    1. Tye’s interracial relationship with Anna was like them talking extra loud about my past. Like a megaphone into a microphone loud. I distinctly remember thinking the same thoughts as Tye while dating my first white woman but I never spoke them out loud because I already felt guilty and traitorous and giving it words would make the feelings I had true to everyone. Finding out that Tye was also from the deep South, just like me, emptied the clip for me. I’m over it now but then I was such a pain in the ass because I was so conflicted.

    Sidenote #1: Let me just say that I loved looking at Tye. She’s beautiful and handsome and all things in between.

    Sidenote #2: I think it’s interesting the contrast between Tye the woman who was happy and in love but unhappy with her job and Tye the woman who is killing it but runs away from or sabotages anything that makes her happy. I wish they’d tackled that more but now I wonder what angle they’d take (e.g., the past never stays there or women can’t have it all).

    2. Quinn, the sweet, slightly scattered yet hopeful West Indian with mommy issues reminds me so much of a woman I’ve been seriously crushing on for a while now as she is quite literally Quinn minus the naivete, gullibility and thirst. I swear when she started mocking Angie in her West Indian accent, my knees buckled with nostalgia. The way in which they wrote her attraction to Isabella was very cute and I definitely looked forward to them sharing screentime (amazing chemistry) more than Tye and any of her messy entanglements.

    3. Tye ignoring her pain because she knew she would get dismissed if she went to the doctor or the hospital was a THIS! moment. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone to doctors telling them my symptoms and/or armed with my medical records and surreptitiously having it all dismissed as something in my head or me seeking pain medication or sympathy. It’s gotten to the point now where if I have to see a new doctor, I literally tell them up front that if they aren’t going to listen to me and treat me like someone who matters then don’t waste my time. One reaction I got was such comedy (the wrong kind but still comedy) that I almost burst out laughing in the doctor’s face.

    4. The friendships. Though about 1/3 of the dialogue was cringe, the other 2/3 were spot on. How they talk to, rib, counsel, etc. felt real to me and I loved that. Since COVID I have not been able to get that in-person feeling with my friends and I miss it deeply.

    5. The outfits. Yes, they are a storyline in and of themselves.

    6. The women. Also not a storyline but they are beautiful to look at.

    I think because the show provided me with some palpable touchstones and because I’m really missing my friends and going out with them, I ended up liking it more than I disliked it despite its cringe and over-the-top wanna-be-wokeness. I’m pretty sure if I watched it again, I’ll feel differently but for now, I’ll take it.

  3. I unabashedly loved this show. Yes it was all over the place, and I felt like the person who read the lesbian character did so after reading a few (cheesy) lesbian novels and/or by stalking Lena Waithe, but I loved how they supported each other through their trials and tribulations.

    But then they made the okra comparison and they lost me again.

  4. I binged this show yesterday due to this headline and then I came back to read the article- 100% agree on the cringe and iffiness- AND it was still a good watch. Like lots of weird as heck things happening but I had fun wasting my time on it

  5. I know this post has been up for weeks (and I was waiting for it for weeks) and I was going to keep this comment to myself, but I realized not sharing, especially since I feel like I’m saying this respectfully, isn’t helpful for me or anyone else who probably feels the same.

    No, this show isn’t perfect, but so many of our other shows aren’t. However, how many Black-led queer shows (and TBH, Black-led shows on any site that does TV/Film recaps) get a proper episode-by-episode recap analysis?

    I understand how recapping gets picked on this site. I even understand that lately making Black queer content has caused this site issues. However, I’m still an A+ member (for now) because of the variety and having somewhere to go and running out of spoons (and yes, I do have a condition that’s relevant to relate to the spoons model) to create the thing I need to see.

    As for the show, what I do want to see next season is for the now two queer cast members to navigate the awkwardness and challenges that presented themselves and for one or both or all of them to get to be a narrator. If we get another season and its still too wacky, then I’ll be like cancel the show and the representation, but I still feel like there was room to discuss Black queer person things that Twenties and All-American and some of the other shows haven’t given us the room to work through — i.e. being a stemme, religious trauma, moving to a Black(Queer) “Mecca” and finding it lacking/triggering, running a business/campaign as a Black queer person that’s come into wealth regardless of presentation…

    And I’m still rooting for y’all to continue to build this site, but I’m seeing bias issues still play out (and having edited a niche publication with similar issues around not just Black, but BIPOC content as a whole, I hope that growth continues to happen and I’m happy to share and talk more about it as a professional editor/writer)

    • Hi EJ,

      I respectfully hear your frustration. I wanted to say a little more about how these decisions are made on our end, just to help with any miscommunications!

      We covered two Black lead shows (Twenties, Batwoman) with full episode recaps this fall, both of which had queer Black leads (Tye and Quinn are not the lead characters in Harlem — Meagan Good’s character, Camille, is the protagonist) and majority Black casts. Both of these shows also have multiple queer and/or Black people in their writers’ room. I assume that Harlem had a majority Black writers’ room, I didn’t look into how many queer people wrote on the show — but the underdevelopment of Tye isn’t promising on that front.

      We’ll be continuing Batwoman recaps this winter along with another queer Black led show (Euphoria), a show that we didn’t cover with full recaps in it’s first season — much like Twenties — but have decided to pick up with full recaps in its second season because we do want to have fuller coverage of Black queer content, among a variety of other factors. We are also doing episode-by-episode recaps of Yellowjackets at the moment, and though I haven’t watched it (I’m a scaredy cat by nature and horror isn’t my genre), it’s my understanding that the main queer character in that show is Black as well. Though I respect that Yellowjackets and Euphoria are not shows with majority Black casts, designed for Black audiences, and that is different from a show like Twenties — which, again, we did cover with recaps — or Harlem.

      There might be some confusion on this front, but we do not do episode-by-episode recaps of shows that drop all of their episodes in one fell swoop for streaming, as did Harlem. That’s true across the board. We don’t have enough writers on our team for to be able to handle that kind of quick turnaround! I think the last time we attempted it was for the fifth season of Orange is the New Black, all the way back in like… summer 2017? We try to cover “buzzy” shows on streaming networks that prefer binge formats, like Harlem, with full season reviews.

      That said, you are correct that Harlem’s review went up a few weeks later than I had hoped. To be honest with you, as you can tell from my review, I wasn’t a huge fan of the show. The delay was, in part, because I had hoped to find a different writer to write about it. I wanted to give it as positive a light as I could — because I do care so deeply about Black queer projects, and even if I don’t particularly like one, I still want to showcase it well for other folks to find the good in them! And as you mentioned, there are themes in Harlem that aren’t in other Black queer shows and are worth discussing — such as stemme representation (though Tye identifies in the show as masculine presenting), religious upbringing (I thought her monologue on compulsory heterosexuality was one of the highlights of the show), and yes living in a Black “Mecca” like Harlem and confronting homophobia and sexism from within our own communities.

      Unfortunately (and this is not an exaggeration) every Black queer writer I reached out to in my network and rolodox also did not have much interest in writing about Harlem. It happens that way sometimes. I don’t have proof of this, but I think between running close to the holiday break and an overall lack of passion for the show, writers were just not prioritizing this project — I also think none of us really enjoy being critical about a Black work, you know? So! After two weeks of trying, I decided to continue through with the review myself.

      And again, I am sorry to hear that you have felt frustrated by our coverage. Of past fall recap coverage, 50% of our shows had Black leads (Batwoman and Twenties, or two out of the four shows we covered this fall with full recaps. More if you count Bette Porter as the lead of Gen Q, for the purposes of the quick math I just did in my head, I did not). In our winter coverage, it will also be 50% of the shows (Yellowjackets, Euphoria, and once again Batwoman, or three out of the six shows we will be giving recap coverage too). I happen to know those numbers off of the top of my head because this is a topic (the racial equity and diversity in our recap coverage) I care deeply about, and I can tell that you do as well!

      It’s also worth noting that very little of the shows we cover on the site, across the board, get weekly recaps. The vast vast majority get either single standalone reviews, like this one, or weekly mini-cap coverage in our Boobs on Your Tube column — you’re an A+ member, so I assume you already know what that is. When we are considering our coverage every month, we consider those other formats to be equally as valuable as weekly recaps.

      The reasons we decide to go with a standalone or BOYT recap usually has to do with the format of the show (as I mentioned, shows that are designed to be binged don’t get weekly recaps — other shows, like Queens on ABC or All American, have smaller weekly gay roles and are best served with mini-recaps in BOYT, just for another example). We next take into account our staff availability and interest. There’s a matrix of other considerations as well, but the forefront of all of those are about equity in terms of QTPOC content and how we can stretch our team to make sure that content is getting the best light we can provide it.

      I wanted to be as transparent — and lengthy! I apologize for the length! — as possible in response to your question because I recognize how important it really is. I hope you found this additional information about how we make decisions behind-the-scenes and stats about our coverage useful. If you have any more questions, please feel free to use the A+ inbox to let me know! I get the responses to that inbox directly, and there’s more I’ll be able to say in that format than I can in the comments of an article.

      Thank you again for your feedback.

      (Please excuse any typos in my response! I have a broken keyboard, and I haven’t had a chance to get it fixed yet. Thanks.)

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