One of my favorite episodes of Moesha is the one where she blows a paycheck upgrading her bedroom with cable, a phone line and a bunch of furniture and electronics from a Rent-A-Center-like store and learns a tough lesson on money management by watching her new goods repossessed. Moesha’s humiliation resided only in the horror of having her father wag his finger in her face. The joke here was a spoiled upper-middle class teenager learning a lesson about debt collection, not in her ability to understand the trappings of predatory lending or the prevalence of stores like that in the Black neighborhood she was growing up in.
Coming of age in a lower class Black neighborhood came with plenty of reminders of the indignities of being poorer than many of the kids at your school, but few are more vivid in my mind than the routine sight of a navy blue Rent-A-Center truck pulling into my apartment complex and dropping off new furniture sets or big screen televisions only to roll back around a few weeks later to collect them whenever someone fell behind on payments. Sometimes there’d be a screaming match between a neighbor that had gone delinquent and the worker sent to execute the repo. Sometimes fists would fly. There was even nasty gossip about one of the workers and one of the women in the building across from mine. And more than once, I pretended not to see one of the kids I played with weeping from the commotion playing out in front of the complex.
I hadn’t thought about those days in years before coming across South Side on HBO Max a few months ago. South Side uses a predatory lending center and its relationship to the struggling, lower class community it does business in as a way to offer a nuanced, satirical look at an oft-derided class of Black American dreamers.
Set in Chicago’s Englewood, an area that gets plenty of ink for its status as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country, South Side follows Simon (Sultan Salahuddin) and Kareme (Kareme Young), best friends who just graduated from community college with big ambitions. Simon hopes to work in business and Kareme is writing a series of science fiction books and has a passion for astronomy. They have big dreams but no means or real ability to achieve them so they have to settle for working at a Rent-A-Center-like shop ran by Kareme’s twin brother Quincy (Quincy Young), who gets off on punishing the two in demoralizing ways.
South Side, which debuted on Comedy Central in 2019 before moving to HBO Max, is largely rooted in the slapstick humor of traditional workplace comedies but there’s a sharpness to its critique on blue collar labor. It made me think about Superstore, a wonderful and underrated sitcom explored the inner lives of a group of workers at a Midwestern big box chain on the brink of closure. These characters are in these jobs because they have to be, not because they want to and are beaten down by a company that takes advantage of their desperation with low wages and brutal working conditions. South Side uses the tension between a store that saddles its customers with debt they already can’t afford, those that have to use those services, and those stuck working there. The dynamic between that oppressive triangle provides much of the show's material.
The series doesn’t shy away from the realities of lower class life in a poor Black neighborhood struggling with violence, drugs, gangs, brazen over policing, and political disenfranchisement and the characters living it—nor is there any discretion in where the jokes are pulled from. Early on we see Simon’s graduation dinner spoiled when he’s popped for back child support and hauled off to jail and the crux of both seasons is his and Kareme's quest for cash. They are so strapped for it that they will happily chase anything that’ll yield them a quick buck. They sell seasoned popcorn for cheap outside a movie theatre. They sling Viagra out of the Rent-T-Own to senior citizens on the low. They work as extras on the cop procedural that shoots in town. There hustles are endless, as are the L's they take.
Simon and Kareme are chasing dreams that are largely unattainable for reasons many of our Black men experience often—Simon has a small criminal record so he’s an undesirable candidate for most jobs and the industry Kareme wants to break into is racist. The Black American dream has always meant reckoning with those inequalities—and those hurdles are all the more difficult to overcome when you come up in neighborhoods with less resources like an Englewood or a Detroit or a Compton. Hustling is the key to getting by—of survival, really—and that is where many of the best gags on South Side come from. Everyone here is chasing a bag or pulling off some slick hustle that will hopefully push them two steps forward, even if it means falling three steps back when it inevitably fails.
While Simon and Kareme are the center of the show, Officers Goodnight and Turner (Bashir and his wife, Chandra Russell) are its heartbeat. Russell is a sensation as Turner, a slick cop who cares more about looking fly and getting laid. She’s got her own hustles—either from bribing the neighborhood she patrols or impulsive schemes like becoming a landlord—and often finds pleasure in humiliating Goodnight, her straight-laced, bootlicking partner that Bashir approaches so much sincerity that you'd feel bad for all the cruelty the guy endured if he wasn’t such a dope.
What really makes South Side standout is its commitment to speaking to a specificity of the Black American experience that’s rarely seen on television. There’s a renaissance of series focused on the perspectives of Black folks living and dating and dreaming. We have so many shows offering such nuanced looks at Black life that it's reminiscent of the boom of shows UPN rolled out in the late nineties. But sharply written looks at lower class and poor Black people not entirely focused on the violence and crime beleaguering the neighborhoods they lived in have always been much harder to come by.
The show’s creators—Salahuddin and his brother Bashir, both South Side natives, and Bashir’s writing partner Diallo Riddle (they worked on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and made Sherman's Showcase together)—have created a world steeped in the specificity of its location and the people who live and work there. There's a reverence and nuance baked into the show that requires the viewer to be well-versed in a wide range of subtleties within the Black collective experience to fully appreciate the depths of belly laughs these characters are going for. A Jordan drop. Hood funerals. Wig culture. Spades. All of these are sources of minutia embedded into the action of South Side. You don't have to necessarily understand all the nuances to find humor in the irreverence playing out on screen but it certainly does pay off to have lived it.