Yup – so tonight was the long-awaited series premiere of VH1's new "romantic comedy" series, Single Ladies, starring Stacey Dash and LisaRaye McCoy. My review of the premiere episode is after the jump.
Single Ladies opens with a scene in which the series' stars – Stacey Dash, LisaRaye McCoy, and Charity Shea – argue with their men about the distinction between male soul singers who are "just nasty" and male soul singers who are "acceptable nasty." The scene doesn't work dramatically or comedically, but it succeeds in actually helping us understand exactly what kind of show we are dealing with here.
Single Ladies is not acceptably bad. It's just bad.
And like the fellas in that opening scene, the show doesn't really care that there is a distinction between a bad show and a guilty pleasure. The show unfolds in a way that makes it clear that everyone involved has absolutely no idea how to make a television show and doesn't care enough about their audience to find someone who does.
I actually don't know where to begin because almost nothing works here. So let's just provide some set-up shall we?
- Val (Dash) is a stylist who wants to get married. She just opened up a new boutique, was dumped by her boyfriend of five years, Quinn, when she gave him a marriage ultimatum, and has a random hook-up/quasi-dates K.C. (played by former boybander Tilky Jones).
- Keisha (McCoy) is an aging video dancer who moonlights as a thief for Jasmine (played by Kim Porter) and doesn't believe in love. She's got boytoy Woody (played by Akeem Smith) and supposed-to-be charming and supposed-to-be slightly mysterious rich jeweler Malcolm (played by Principal Wood D.B. Woodside, slumming it in a major way and looking terrible doing it).
- And last we have April (Shea) who has no job or life, but is married to a black businessman played by Anthony Montgomery (also slumming it) and is having an affair with the mayor of Atlanta (played by Common).
For starters, Single Ladies doesn't even know what it is. VH1 is selling it as a "romantic comedy" but there is not one laugh in the premiere. To be fair, the premiere is a television movie that only became a television show pilot late in production, but there is nothing in this episode to indicate that the producers understand how to write comedy or, for that matter, drama.
This is amateur hour in every way. The show is poorly written, poorly cast, poorly lit, and poorly shot.
Everyone is cast for their beauty, not their talent. Dash has never been a strong actress and is working right up to the edge of what she can do, Shea is given almost nothing to play, and McCoy has very good comic timing (which she used quite well on All of Us) that the show isn't using.
All three women lack the skill to make something of this mess and they get little support from the rest of the cast. D.B. Woodside and Anthony Montgomery have showed considerable skill in the past, but they are reduced to ciphers here and are incapable of elevating the material. Common is tragically, embarrasingly miscast; Jones is playing earnest in a way that suggests he might have wandered in from a different, better show; and Travis Winfrey, who plays Val's gay assistant Omar, is probably the best thing in the show, but that's not really saying much. And none of the romantic pairings generate any heat.
It is clear that Single Ladies is working with the non-existent standard black television show budget, which means that the action is confined to roughly one place (Val's boutique) and the directing is as unobtrusive and unimaginative as possible likely to ensure that the show can be shot quickly and cheaply. Stacey Dash and LisaRaye McCoy are well over 40, but they are stunning women who don't need to be shot in soft lighting. The shots of things (jewels, clothing, cars, etc) are more visually compelling than any of the static two-shots of actors that the director employs throughout.
The cheap nature of the production also means that the show fails to make good use of Atlanta as a setting, other than to insert pointless, distracting cameos from stars like Eve and Chilli. This really should be fixed in subsequent episodes, because it's the one element of the show that isn't completely and totally derivative. Atlanta is without question the center of the Black American bourgeoisie and there is tremendous dramatic potential in telling stories about that very specific piece of contemporary Black American life. Girlfriends was very much a Los Angeles show and New York City was the fifth main character in Sex and the City, Single Ladies has to use Atlanta similarly or the show simply will not work.
But the show's real problem is that by the end of the two-hour pilot, I don't really care what happens to these women. There is no real reason to like or care about Val, Keisha, or April, and the men are either pretty boy ciphers or cartoon villains. And crucially, Single Ladies doesn't bother to help us understand why these three women are friends. Presumably, the producers are shooting for a show like Girlfriends and Sex and the City, but those shows made the relationships between the women central to the show and established the bonds very quickly in the pilots. Single Ladies is a show ostensibly about women bonding but it fails to actually show its lead characters bonding. We are just supposed to accept that these three women are friends. We don't.
When Girlfriends started in 2000, the network required that Mara Brock Akil share producing and showrunner duties with Mark Alton Brown and Dee LaDuke (who were producers on Designing Women and produced the Black gay classic, Jackie's Back) in order to learn how a television show is professionally produced. This ensured that the show was well-made, but also, more crucially, helped Akil to learn what it takes to make a quality television show on a major network so she could take over showrunner duties in the third season and then go on to a very successful career.
That is obviously not happening here. Series creator and executive producer Stacy A. Littlejohn, who worked on All of Us and One on One, really needs an experienced hand here. Clearly, VH1 saw Queen Latifah's name on this show and figured that it wouldn't need to protect it's investment (I use that term very very loosely, of course) by hiring an experienced television producer, writer, or showrunner, to refine the premise with Littlejohn and make it work on television.
Ever since The Game returned to record-breaking numbers in January and networks began greenlighting pilots with Black stars and casts, there's been all this talk about a "revival" in Black television, but if Single Ladies is any indication that renaissance is a swindle. One has to assume that everyone involved in making Single Ladies has complete and utter contempt for Black audiences. This is terrible, unprofessional work.
But, let's be real here, VH1 knows that Black audiences are starved for their own shows and that we'll watch anything (at least, at first) and tell ourselves "but if we don't watch, we may not get anything else." This assumption likely animates everything that Hollywood does with respect to Black filmmaking and, if applied to this new wave of Black shows, will ensure that we are about to live through one of the worst periods for Black representations on television in decades.
Let's hope not.