In an interview with me last week, I asked KarynRose Bruyning, writer, director and co-creator of the popular web-based series Smoke and Mirrors, why so many Black-produced web series are about love and relationships. Her response pointed to the obvious: because there isn’t a lot of programming in the mainstream about love, which is geared to the Black millennial.
“All of us are trying to figure out how to do love and more specifically, how to do black love,” Bruyning said. This week, she will premiere the long-awaited second season of the series. It’s about a 20-something Black man navigating love and relationships.
As Bruyning also tells me, there are no young adults on television anymore. Most television shows, which focus on love and relationships, only tend to deal with the themes as it affects teenagers in high school or adults over 35 who are already married with fabulous careers and children.
“Nobody between the ages of 18 and 35 are talked about in relationships,” Bruyning said. “Everything is about relationships 35 to 45. You know, the space where we are supposed to have it all together. But what about getting there?”
The gap is even worse for Black audiences whose love lives have virtually been erased from the television landscape altogether. Bruyning said that back in the day, the Black viewing audience had a variety of television relationships to either aspire to or learn from. That diversity of relationship models spanned across the socioeconomic spectrum. It included the likes of George and Weezie, James and Florida, Martin and Gina, Sinclair and Overton, Dwayne and Whitley, and Clair and Cliff, just to name a few… Now, according to Bruyning, Black-ish pretty much represents the scope of Black love on television today.
Smoke and Mirrors is definitely a worthy exemplar of the kind of confusion about matters of the heart faced by many within this generation. The series has been hailed for its beautiful black-and-white cinematography, great writing, and overall Love Jones-esque vibe. It’s main character, Sonny Richards, is a young dreadlock wearing, independent filmmaker who is indecisive in love. He often projects his insecurities onto the women he dates. In the second season, we get to know more about Richards, in particular, his career, his friendships, and his new girlfriend. We are also reintroduced to an old girlfriend. It sounds messy, but like contemporary authentic Black love, it is more complicated than that.
The realness, as well as the slick cinematography on the show, is helped by Smoke and Mirrors co-creator and star Artemus Jenkins. Bruyning said that it was Jenkins who suggested they collaborate on a project about his real-life breakup. She said that she not only liked the idea instantly, but managed to have three episodes written within a few days. Bruyning, whose background is mostly in theater production, including producing (and writing) her own Off-Broadway play, “My Song, The Way I Sing It,” does all of the writing for the show. And she not only draws inspiration from Jenkins’ life but also from her own observations made about men and relationships “as one of those girls who had nothing but male friends.”
Bruyning said that she had no idea what the response would be when they uploaded Smoke and Mirrors onto YouTube in 2013. At the worst, she figured it would be a one-and-done series.”We just did it and hoped that folks would love it,” she said.
And they did. In particular, among the young Black male demographic, which has a strong presence among the show’s viewership. Bruyning said that young men would often write in the show’s YouTube channel, talking about how much they could relate to Richards and had no clue that the show was written by a woman. “It was really because of the fans that the show has a second season,” she said. “That is the truth. That is the whole truth.”
Bruyning said that millennials have been faced with the unique challenge of trying to figure out what is love and what it should look like with little to no guidance. And she hopes her show, as well as many of the other relationship-themed web series, can provide space for her generation to see their issues reflected back to them.
In spite of having their love lives ignored by mainstream television, Bruyning also said that the Internet has gifted millennials with a unique position to recreate and redefine love in their own image. “There are so many ways to tell that story and so many different narratives,” she said. “Because of the Internet, people have decided to tell it themselves because nobody was talking to us about this.