The exact particulars of the apocalypse are unclear—what caused the disaster; what precise form, or forms, the fury took—and all that we, the viewers, know of what happened is that it’s referred to as The Event and that Earth’s remaining survivors are four black women. Fortunately, post-Armageddon life comes with delightful upsides.”We don’t have any mediocre white men getting promoted over us,” one points out. “We don’t have Sally Mae calling us all the time like I’m fucking her man,” adds another. The scene, which jolts and spellbinds with the affecting draw of a Last Poets cipher, is just one of several fluorescent currents from HBO’s dynamic and dynamite six-episode series A Black Lady Sketch Show, which debuts tonight on HBO.
The unsaid irony of the women’s candor, and of their unburdened presence before us on TV—black female voices talking freely and without the claw of male authority on a prestige network—is that a scene like this would likely only exist if the world had actually come to an end (which, depending on how you color your personal worldview, it kind of has in a way). That’s the real gag. Luckily, we don’t have to wait until the oceans have warmed to an inhospitable boil and the ground beneath us has decayed into ash and bone for such biting, resonant, and needed fare.
In most ways, ABLSS mirrors classic sketch totems like Chappelle’s Show, Inside Amy Schumer, and Saturday Night Live. What the genre has lacked in past years—diversity of thought and representation—Thede and Co. make up for tenfold. In fact, the foursome are among a rising comedy avant-garde on TV that includes Spanish language curios (HBO’s charming Los Espookys), alt-sketch programs (Netflix’s deliriously clever I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and Comedy Central’s Alternatino), black mockumentaries (IFC’s Sherman’s Showcase), and more traditional fare (South Side, which debuted on Comedy Central last week to impressive numbers).
The boom is likely to hold, too. Netflix is betting on a series from emerging sketch-comedy troupe Astronomy Club, to be executive produced by Kenya Barris. HBO has ordered second seasons of Los Espookys and Random Acts of Flyness, the hallucinogenic series from Terence Nance that probes black futurity. And, if A Black Lady Sketch Show gets the attention it deserves, HBO would be wise to renew it too.
ABLSS was created by Robin Thede (The Rundown with Robin Thede; The Nightly Show) and is executive produced by Issa Rae (Insecure), which means much of its thematic terrain comes naturally and is only heightened by the comedic elasticity of the four women at the show’s center: actress-comedian-writers Gabrielle Dennis, Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, and Thede. Each episode, too, is packed tight with veteran talent: Angela Bassett runs a Bad Bitch Support Group, Nicole Byer moonlights as an evil spy, and Patti LaBelle is a singing spirit who appears every time Black breaks up with a boyfriend.
I don’t want to make too much of the show’s obvious benchmark—it’s a fully black-women-led enterprise; exclusively starring, written, and directed by—especially since that should be the bare minimum for TV networks (and film studios) in 2019; but it is noteworthy. Let us not dwell on that fact too long because there are other bona fides that merit rapturous praise: like the innate bond among the show’s leading quartet, the uncommon artistry of the sketches onscreen that instantly burrow into the brain and take hold (A baptist church open mic! Negro League groupies! A local female gang that operates like a mega-corporation, with 401(k)s, maternity leave, and severance packages!), and the diamond polish of the writing. “What I always wanted was to find a black lady therapist in network, but I guess I dream too big,” Black confesses at one point, and later, awash in club lights, Brunson channels her inner Langston Hughes, wondering, “What happens to a twerk unnoticed? Does it dry up like a raisin?”
Almost every wisecrack in A Black Lady Sketch Show spouts and spreads like magma, its wit and social clarity inescapable. All you can really do is give in.
With its collage-like framework, the series wonderfully interrogates the canyons and summits of black womanhood. Almost no men populate the series, and the handful that are allowed screen time are given lines of little consequence or don’t have speaking roles at all. The small nuances of the show are downright refreshing. That choice of reorientation, to essentially position the black woman’s perspective as the default, allows for a kind of unprecedented range rarely allotted on TV. Topics broached span gendered beauty expectations, cancel culture (“Yes, Mel Gibson is a racist asshole, but I can still watch Lethal Weapon for Danny Glover, right?”), controversial bedtime hair regimens (“So no scarf at all, like a black chick on a TV show written by white people?”), dating, collective versus individual black identity (in one sketch, Dennis admits to not wearing lotion and is met with unanimous ire), classic R&B songs, and problematic wokeness. Thede’s Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman believes the black family unit is under threat because men are “unfocused and unproductive, doing frivolous things like getting therapy and smiling.” Almost every wisecrack spouts and spreads like magma, its wit and social clarity inescapable. All you can really do is give in.
In the debut episode, one woman who is part of Bassett’s Bad Bitch Support Group dreams of being “just an OK bitch.” But her hopes are quickly deflated by fellow members; one woman instantly snaps back, “We don’t use that type of language up in here.” But it’s all a veneer for the sketch’s grander play, it’s unpacking of unrealistic gender expectations. The camera pans out, and it’s revealed that these women are test subjects in a study being conducted by Fashion Nova, the fast-fashion retailer that puts a premium on of-the-moment trends, however fleeting. Behind a pane of glass, one sinister executive remarks, “If women start rejecting impossible beauty standards, we’ll go out of business.”
One upside to the streaming wars is how it’s intentionally forced the hand of just about every network. The majors, prestige outfits, and scrappier cable outliers are rushing to produce content of every stripe. The math is not about occupying “hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day,” one top HBO executive said in a New York Times Magazine investigation. A Black Lady Sketch Show certainly exists because of this network flood, but it will stay afloat on the strength of its singular distinction. That’s the joke, really. The apocalypse all but upturned the TV landscape—saturating our screens with mostly mediocre content while also opening the gates for creatives that had previously been locked out—but at least we ended up with four fearless, funny black women helping us navigate our way through the aftermath.