Can We Ever Get The Black Family Sitcom Back?

April 30, 2012  |  

Today Bounce TV announced the launch of a new original series, “Family Time,” on what is ironically the 20-year anniversary broadcast of the last episode of The Cosby’s—the show considered by many to be the greatest black family sitcom that ever lived.

Hopes aren’t very high for the show which centers around the experiences of The Stallworths, a working class two-parent, two-children African American family who scratches off a lottery ticket and jumps to middle class overnight. That’s likely because of the network (Bounce) and the actors who are lesser known (Omar Gooding, Angell Conwell, Jayla Calhoun, and Bentley Kyle Evans, Jr.), but I think there’s another element at play when it comes to apprehension about black family sitcoms. For as much complaining as we do about our current depictions on TV and our pleas for a quality family sitcom, the shows just don’t get our support and I think it’s partly because they aren’t reflections of our reality.

Most people said they wanted to give “Reed Between the Lines” a chance, and though poor writing made it understandably hard to do so, outside of that there was a sense that the Reed’s weren’t a “real” family, that they weren’t handling or dealing with issues the way a real black family would, particularly Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s character as a black father. Some of that can be summed up as pure ignorance about the non-monolithic reality of black life but that conundrum begs the question of whether we want black family sitcoms so that life imitates art or whether we’re missing the mark by not having art truly imitate life?

I understand and support the plea for black family shows. Black life is overly represented as a sea of baby mamas and daddy’s lacking any family unit at all, which unfortunately reflects a lot of the reality of society. Somehow when we put together these rosy depictions of the small percentage of black families that consist of two professional parents raising respectable children it’s almost too picture perfect for viewers to get into and without viewers the shows don’t last and we’re stuck back in the same cycle trying to get clearance for another show destined to last one season.

When I think about the success of “Modern Family,” I think, there’s a model black sitcoms could learn from. Aside from being hilariously funny, the families reflect family units that have become the majority in society today. People love the show because one of the families on the show likely is their family. In many ways, rather than being innovative, many black sitcoms attempt to come along and reinvent The Cosby’s and while that format worked great during the 80s, 20+ years later it’s just not totally representative of black life today.

By no means should we give up on putting together strong representations of black families in sitcoms today, but they need to be contemporary and they need to come out from under the shadow of “The Cosby Show,” “The Jeffersons,” “What’s Happening,” and “Good Times.” Those shows were genius because they spoke to their era, we need to do the same in 2012. We can prove that two parent homes exist, we can show that blended families don’t have to mean mess custody battles and unpaid child support, we can show that black families adopt. There are a lot of modern positive examples of black life, what we need are innovative writers and producers who can paint that picture in a way that’s relatable and inspirational.

Do you think there’s a chance for the return of popular black sitcoms on major networks?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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