I spent my childhood watching America’s black sitcom stars shine. There were a sprinkling of British offerings too: The brilliant 3 Non-Blondes, a hidden camera comedy show headed up, rather unusually even by today’s standards, by three darker-skinned black women, Ninia Benjamin, Tameka Empson and Jocelyn Jee Esien; the recently revived The Real McCoy; Desmonds.
But the US list of TV gold that kept me cross-legged and inches away from the television was longer, with higher budgets and more seasons to boot. Simply put, there weren’t enough black British shows to fill my after-school TV binge in the first place. And the ones that were there, were short-lived.
If you’re familiar with Netflix’s Strong Black Lead – US Netflix’s black content push led by black executives at the company – you may have come across that list this week.
Sister Sister, Moesha, One on One, Girlfriends, Half & Half, are all shows that have all landed on the American version of the streaming service; shows I relied on for any semblance of representation, pop culture references and silly playground banter, or re-enacting the scenes that stuck in the impressionable minds of myself and my childhood friends.
As welcome as that news is for the largely black millennials who are undoubtedly ecstatic about the offering, for black millennial Brits, I know how much it would have stung to realise that we would not be getting that at all.
Based on the number of screenshots I’ve seen of famous scenes from all of those shows this week, the offering has clearly been a hit. I’ve watched black Americans wax lyrical about which characters they see themselves as; which storylines, upon re-watching, are problematic under a 2020 lens; or simply how much they missed being able to escape to these perfectly-crafted sitcom worlds, after years of some of them being off air.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel immensely jealous. Black British kids born in the late 80s and early 90s were, obviously, not the audience these shows were intended for. Yet, given how huge their impact was on so many of us, it feels like a colossal shame that they aren’t available here.
If you were as big a fan of Trouble, a cable TV channel owned by Virgin Media, as I was growing up, you’d be feeling the sting too. Axed in 2009, it plugged the glaring gap on British TV when it came to black-led shows. It was where I watched all of the aforementioned US black-led programmes (excluding Sister Sister, which aired on Nickelodeon), not to mention heaps of others: My Wife and Kids; All of Us; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; even Different Strokes, which I only ever watched out of sheer desperation when nothing else was on (even by the late 90s, it felt severely dated).
Paramount, now Comedy Central, gave me my first taste of HBCU culture with re-runs of The Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World, something I naively believed we had in the UK, daydreaming which black sorority I’d join when I eventually went to university, and wondering where I could get Dwayne Wayne’s iconic flip-up glasses.
Of course, I was equally invested in the few black British shows we had. Desmonds must have been on its fifth or sixth reboot by the time I was old enough to appreciate it. I didn’t just see myself when I tuned in, I saw the community I lived in, too. And I was richer for it. As far as I can recall, my first celebrity sighting was of Ram John Holder (who played the famous Pork Pie) on his way to pick up a relative from my childhood dance school. It was at that moment I knew the true meaning of being utterly starstruck, stuttering the words “Mummy, that’s P-Pork Pie!” when I noticed his character’s namesake’s hat and that springy afro hair.
My issue, however, isn’t with the fact that America has access to these shows. It makes complete sense that they do. I suppose what feels upsetting is the idea that they’d be of no value elsewhere, not just to black people who grew up on these shows, but for anyone who loves a good half hour of high-quality writing and second-to-none comedic timing. Or indeed anyone who isn’t black who grew up loving those shows.
We can’t bring back everything for the sake of nostalgia. But if Friends (also one of my childhood favourites) can still be broadcast in dozens of places, as well as being available in many countries on Netflix, the same should be true of the gold mine of black sitcoms that just landed across the pond.