There’s a scene in the second episode of Saladin K. Patterson's Black reimagining of The Wonder Years that speaks clearest to the mission of the reboot. The dewy-eyed kid at the center of the family sitcom is using the grief of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination as a cover for his jealously over a crush. The little whippersnapper is far too deep in his feelings—and much too immature—to grasp how terrible it is to use the collective grief (and white guilt) of the death of a Civil Rights icon for personal gain. The entire thing is wrapped up with a lovely bow, in the third act of course, when our hero gains some much needed perspective during a fishing trip with his father by coming to the rather sad realization that the simple pleasure of an afternoon fishing trip is a rare respite for a Black man in America.
It’s the sort of tender, but heavy handed scene that gives family sitcoms the warm and fuzziness we come to expect. But rarely does a standard sitcom scene like a father-son fishing trip get to serve as a quiet meditation on Black male self-care. And that’s at the heart of what Patterson and Lee Daniels’s reboot aims to accomplish. By taking the sweet nostalgia of The Wonder Years and filtering it through the lens of a Black family, the series offers an uncommon view of American life of yesteryear.
As The Wonder Years looks to redefine the nostalgic nuclear family drama by centering the very type of family those shows never dared to consider, Fox’s soapy drama Our Kind of People and the gritty true crime inspired BMF are attempts at creating fresh takes on classic Black television tropes. Though these are all wildly different shows, they are driven in part by capturing some version of the Black American dream.
Much of the power of The Wonder Years lies in its reframing of an era through the point of view of one middle class Black family. We haven’t typically seen the stories of Black families living through the Civil Rights era presented as a sitcom—probably because the white TV executives who greenlight shows are afraid of dealing with race in any meaningful way that's not trauma based. Like The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Moesha, My Wife and Kids and Black-ish before it, this Black take on The Wonder Years follows a traditional, middle class family and the mundanities of life in a nice suburban neighborhood.
Like the original series, the story is told from the perspective of a young boy growing up in the late 1960s. And though both versions are anchored by an adult narrator reflecting on their awkward childhood, the wisdom and hindsight we hear in this new version is often complicated by the realities of racial division and how that impacted his life growing up in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s still a classic sitcom, though, so plots are focused on the mundanity of everyday life and all its lessons. But The Wonder Years isn’t looking to rewrite sitcom convention. This is about showing a Black family living the American dream during a time when Black futures were under constant threat—and a reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Since I tend to gravitate towards frothier, escapist television, I was more compelled by the elevator pitches for adult dramas BMF and Our Kind of People. Both shows appeared to burst with the unabashed camp that kept me glued to shows like Scandal, Power, and Empire no matter how wildly incoherent they got over the years and BMF continues 50 Cent’s impressive commitment to bringing drug-trade IP to the small screen that started when Power debuted on Starz in 2014. Power is now a franchise with a stable of connected shows and 50’s latest series could have easily fit in that universe had it not been based on the true saga of Detroit brothers Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory and Terry Flenory.
The Flenory brothers came up in southwest Detroit in the late 1980s and dreamed of getting out of the hood. Motivated by what they saw in the streets, the brothers started hustling and moved enough dope that they became drug kings. Their Black Mafia Family grew into a $270 million criminal enterprise and they funneled their money into the hip-hop business as they expanded their pursuit of the American dream beyond the drug trade before the DEA indicted them for drug trafficking and money laundering. It’s a story ripe for the screen, but thanks to Power and its glut of spin-offs the whole thing would have been exhaustingly familiar if it weren’t for the family drama underneath the sex, drugs and guns. BMF is at its most compelling when exploring the tension in the Flenory household as the brothers build their drug business and the story focuses on the toll their ambitions take on the family. For those already invested in Power and its growing universe, BMF might be one show too many but that’s not the point here. 50 is crafting his own Marvel-like empire out of gritty drug procedurals and even if they don’t break any new ground Tyler Perry shouldn’t be the only Black man in Hollywood allowed to make the same show over and over for an audience willing to tune in.
Like BMF, the splashy melodrama Our Kind of People draws a line between money, power and respect and the Black American dream. Created by Karen Gist and executive produced by Lee Daniels, the series is inspired by Lawrence Otis Graham's non-fiction bestseller Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class. Graham spent years researching the Black elite and its preoccupation with color and class for his expose. Aside from focusing on the rich and powerful Blacks that summer in their family homes on Martha’s Vineyard, the TV adaptation can’t possibly have much in common with Graham’s look at the elite as it’s entirely indebted to conjuring the delightful camp of Dynasty, the over-the-top absurdity of Daniels’s groundbreaking hip-hop drama Empire and the constant thrill of Scandal (right down to the formidable Joe Morton ostensibly reprising his role as Papa Pope).
Our Kind of People is about a haircare entrepreneur is following her dead mother’s footsteps. She’s relocated her family to the Vineyard’s Oak Bluffs as a fresh start for her and her teenage daughter, but she’s desperate to gain entry into the enclave of hoity-toity Blacks that control the social scene of the island in a bid to expand her business—and uncover the truth of her roots. She discovers the wealthy half-sister she never knew and their beef is rooted not in the philandering and lying father they share, but their class and social status. There’s no shortage of beautiful people doing messy and awful things in the name of pursuing Black excellence and Our Kind of People is largely fun because of how absurdly overwrought it all is. There’s not a single twist you don’t see from a mile away, but we rarely get to see a series attempt to have something (or rather anything) to say about class structure, lineage, hair politics or the Black one percent. Granted Our Kind of People doesn’t appear to have the slightest interest in seriously interrogating the heavier themes beneath its surface. But even if the story never ventures away from the scandalous mess that makes it a frothy and bingeable watch, its focus on bougie Black American dreams places the series in rarefied space on primetime television. And that's exactly the point.