The Next Episode
Black writers and actors are making their ownshows outside the network TV system.
Shani O. Hilton is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.
Ege Soyuer is a designer and amateur mechanic living in Echo Park.
I was raised on classic soaps like General Hospital. My older sister and I watched the drama unfold after school every day. I loved how a single storyline could thrill for weeks, and even more, how if you stopped watching for a few months, you’d return to find that nothing had changed in Port Charles. The schemers, the simps, the wicked, and the weak remained the same. They were there for you.
Last fall, I heard about a web soap opera called Anacostia: The Series. Anacostia, the show’s namesake, seemed an unlikely setting. A small swath of land in the Southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., “Anacostia” is often a stand-in for “the ghetto.” At 90 percent black, it’s a part of town that young professionals have long derided as a scary no-yuppie’s-land.
I was instantly interested. Here was one of my favorite TV formats, mapped onto a neighborhood in the city where I lived, with characters who looked more like me than iconic GH couple Luke and Laura.
By the time I got around to watching Anacostia, the neighborhood’s eponymous series was in its third season. Despite the perception of Anacostia as dangerous and culturally bankrupt—which it isn’t—the show was thriving. On YouTube, its modest viewership has steadily climbed to about 9,000 views per episode, which is low compared to breakout online series like The Guild or Awkward Black Girl, but not too shabby. It has won two Indie Soap awards, and pulled in As The World Turns actress Martha Byrne to guest star.
Much like one-joke Tumblrs that people create when they’re drunk, plenty of web series don’t make it past the drafting of the “About” section. And when their creators do persist, most of the work is low-budget and amateurish, with nary a sense of lighting, camerawork, or rhythmic dialogue. Anacostia was different. It was sublimely ridiculous and indulgent—all the things I loved about soaps.
Though a standout online series like Anacostia is still rare, it is not alone. A small but blossoming community of black directors, producers, actors, and screenwriters are creating series exclusively for the web. They’re the latest iteration of a rich history of black media that’s run parallel to the much-whiter mainstream.
Even though Anacostia is a show with an all-black cast, it doesn’t have the sort of for-colored-folks dogwhistling that most mainstream black series do. There’s no reliance on black vernacular. It very seldom dips into self-conscious dialogue about what black folks do or don’t do. There’s drama—plenty of it—but most of it could translate to any predominately white soap.
“It started out to be an independent film,” says Anthony Anderson, Anacostia’s funder, producer, writer, director, and one of its stars. (He’s not the Anthony Anderson of Law & Order fame.) We’re sitting in a black-walled speakeasy in Silver Spring, Maryland, close enough to D.C. to taste the cocktail culture that has spread across state lines, but far enough away that a drink with artisanal bitters and raisin-infused booze is half the price it would be downtown.
“The more I wrote the characters, the more I thought they were really dynamic,” Anderson says. “Characters that I’m not used to seeing, as far as African Americans. And a friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you just make it episodic?’ ”
This was a couple of years ago. At the time, Anderson didn’t really know much about web series. “What really got me excited about it was the lack of African-American representation on television,” he says. The lone web-only show he’d heard about was an effort starring Jaleel White, of Urkel fame, called Fake It ‘Til You Make It. The show chronicled the exploits of a former child star named Reggie Culkin, played by White. It was pretty bad (go figure), and, after premiering on Hulu in June 2010, only ran for eight episodes.
Anacostia has fared much better. “Our stories are not black stories; our stories are people stories,” Anderson says. “So, whether you’re African American, whether you’re Caucasian, whether you’re Latin—it doesn’t matter what your nationality is. Everyone can look at our show and relate to something that is going on with those characters or something that’s going on in the story lines.”
Taken literally, this is probably a bit of a stretch. Anacostia begins with a man’s mysterious murder in a dark parking lot, then flashes backward in time. The first season explores why the man was killed, and plenty of people have motives, including the widowed husband of his dead business partner (who he’s trying to screw out of the business) and his own wife, at whom he’s hurled verbal insults and mashed potatoes. But beneath that melodramatic arc are traditional stories of friendship, frustration, and love.
Our stories are not black stories; our stories are people stories.
Whether or not you can relate to any of Anacostia’s storylines, Anderson’s main point, about how white most TV networks are, still stands. Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project debuted this fall on Fox to much fanfare, even though it’s pretty much like every vaguely cerebral comedy on television right now. She’s the exception that proves the rule: A woman of color writing her own ticket is an anomaly. Looking at the five major television networks —ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, and the CW—it’s difficult to name more than a handful of shows with more than one main character of color. It’s a reminder of the much-lauded Bechdel test, which is used to evaluate sexism in film. In order to pass the test, named for feminist cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the film must have 1. two female characters, 2. who have a conversation with each other, and 3. talk about something other than men. Replace “female characters” with “characters of color” and “men” with “white people” and it’s even harder to come up with television series or films that would pass.
In the ’90s, mainstream TV wasn’t quite so pale, with a handful of notable shows portraying middle-class black families (Family Matters) and bougie young professionals (Living Single). On the older networks, there was a sprinkling of primetime black dramas like City of Angels, and on the younger networks, a few comedies like The Steve Harvey Show.
“I think there was a time when it seemed like we were going in a very positive direction,” says Anderson, “and then it slipped under the radar that there became less and less and less African-American series on primetime television.”
Black-directed network shows began to slip away in the early 2000s. There were some notable exceptions—Kelsey Grammar, the conservative former Frasier star, invested in shows like Girlfriends (which ran from 2000 to 2008) and The Game (2006 to present). Soul Food, a Showtime spin-off of the 1997 movie that was canceled in 2004, was one of the longest-running black dramas ever. It lasted four seasons.
“You started seeing the cable networks pulling away from shows like Soul Food, which, for a lot of African Americans, was like the show we could relate to,” Anderson says.
Ratings-wise, black shows have mostly done OK, but these days OK isn’t good enough. Studios, struggling to figure out a changing entertainment landscape, tend to sink cash into guaranteed blockbusters and their sequels. And black productions, which were already limited in scope, have narrowed to encompass little more than Tyler Perry-esque comedies, which are profitable but flat. Everything else? Good luck getting it made.
Kyra and Kozie Kyle are sisters who liken themselves to the Hiltons, the Olsens, and the Wayanses (but not the Kardashians). The Kyles, who live in Chicago, have developed a limited-run web show called Human Resources that takes aim at corporate greed, the economic downturn, and aliens. Kozie, a marketing executive, says the extraterrestrial twist came to her in a difficult professional time. “I went through a layoff situation,” she says. “And whenever I told people about work, I always related it to a sci-fi film.”
The show’s oddball premise fits nowhere within black TV stereotypes, especially when you learn that all of the characters happen to be puppets. And while the viewership on YouTube is positively tiny—few of its episodes break 1,000 views—its bizarre plot is refreshing.
Stylistically, Human Resources is more Crank Yankers than The Muppets. The voice acting makes the puppets seem shuddery and stressed—and no wonder, as they’re worried about losing their jobs and an alien invasion. I told the Kyles that their show was one of the weirder web series I’d seen—in a good way. They laughed.
“We’re both huge fans of puppets,” Kyra, a journalist, says. “It’s a good way to do colorblind casting. We could choose anyone we wanted that was great for the part.” Puppets aren’t easy to parse by ethnicity, the sisters say, so they were able to create “a more universal story.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Black Folk Don’t, a web series that comes from a more explicitly black perspective. The documentary show focuses on cultural mythology: “Black folk don’t get married.” “Black folk don’t swim.” And so on. Director Angela Tucker, a New York-based filmmaker who grew up in the East Village, received a grant from Black Public Media, an arm of the Public Broadcasting Corporation, to create the series.
“This idea of ‘black folk don’t’ just kind of came to me,” Tucker says. As she put it, she’s someone who does things black folk stereotypically don’t. Whether it’s camping or atheism, the series focuses on a new topic every episode and asks black commentators from a variety of backgrounds to weigh in. The result is a rare juxtaposition of real, complex black people and inaccurate, simplistic black stereotypes.
“In my mind, no one is, like, an expert on being black, you just speak your experience,” Tucker says.
That approach seems to resonate. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of my friends shared Black Folk Don’t with me—and not all of them were black. Black media isn’t nearly as insulated as it was in pre-digital decades. Unlike their culturally voracious forebears, today’s white people don’t actually have to brave a theater in an unfamiliar neighborhood or take a trip uptown to get access to the latest hot jam. There’s no uncomfortable feeling of being outnumbered. Getting an inside look at what blacks are reading and watching and listening to takes little more than signing in to Twitter. Thanks, perhaps, to integration, social networks are more permeable than ever before. All of this benefits black-produced web shows.
In the third season of Anacostia, Anderson scored his biggest coup to date: soap star Martha Byrne agreed to appear as a madam who arrives in Anacostia with a plan to dominate the Beltway prostitution market. In her second scene, she beats a man to death. Anderson met the network-soap veteran when they were cast together on another independent series.
“Because [Byrne] has such a huge fan base, it broadened our demographic to people that would not normally watch Anacostia,” Anderson says. “It opened us up to a whole demographic of Caucasian viewers as well ... and, vice versa, it opened Martha up to a lot of African-American viewers that may have seen her while changing the channels, but then went back and started to Google her.”
“When people do look at [Anacostia], they get past the fact that they think it’s a black show once they get into the storylines and they get into the characters and what’s going on,” Anderson says. “They say, ‘Hey, I either know someone like that, or I’ve been through that, or I’m going through that now. This is a mirror of my life.’ That mirror is colorblind.”
While the web shows may be smart, most still haven’t figured out how to make money. Anacostia has largely been financed by Anderson. And while he won’t tell me exactly what an episode costs, he admits “It’s not a cheap show. I’ll say this, it’s not a cheap show to do. Ask my former lien holder for my car that was repossessed.” He laughs.
In recent seasons, Anderson has been able to wrangle sponsorships, but for a man who’s a full-time federal government employee and single father, there’s not a lot of time to drum up cash.
The Kyles, meanwhile, tapped into their networks to create their puppets (and also incurred a few glue-gun injuries in the process). Only Tucker has traditional-media financing, though Black Public Media.
“We are finding that providing funds for producers to work on discrete projects like Black Folk Don't gives them a lot of freedom to stray very far from the mainstream,” Christian Ugbode, a rep for Black Public Media, tells me over email. “Particularly for producers who want to tell stories about communities of color.” BPM provides $20,000 to each producer to create a short season’s worth of shows on an annual basis. “We think this is the future of content support and distribution, targeted use of funds to engage real communities of interest directly,” Ugbode says.
Tucker knows she’s in a unique position. “They trusted me because I’ve produced feature-length documentaries before, so I was a known entity to them, so in a way, I was like a calculated risk,” she says.
As amateurs find minor success with online shows, larger entities are experimenting with their own web series, albeit slowly. There’s much buzz about the Netflix-sponsored return of Arrested Development—a canceled Fox show about a hopelessly dysfunctional rich white family that garnered critical acclaim but low ratings on traditional television. But unfortunately, many of the patterns from network TV seem to be crossing over online. There’s been no push for a web-only resurrection of Living Single, a black show that was Friends before Friends was Friends. Similarly, Hulu, which was created in a partnership of Fox, NBC, and ABC to offer access to new television programming, is offering a suite of original shows—most of which have predominately white casts.
In an interview with New York magazine earlier this year, director Spike Lee complained about the lack of blacks in Hollywood, as he frequently does. “This comes down to the gatekeepers, and I do not think there is going to be any substantial movement until people of color get into those gatekeeper positions of people who have a green-light vote,” he said. “That is what it comes down to. We do not have a vote, and we are not at that table when it is decided what gets made and what does not get made.”
On the web, there isn’t a vote, there isn’t a table, there isn’t a panel of gatekeepers who greenlight projects. While the black directors and producers may not have access to immediate financing or prominence, the web does provide a real creative avenue for them. Perhaps this is why the web series creators I spoke to seem so happy. They’re in control of their creative destinies.
“This has exceeded what I thought it would be,” Tucker says of Black Folk Don’t. “I thought I would do it one time, people would watch it, and it would be over. I’m still processing that I’m doing a third season. It really is existing in the way that I imagined it.”
Anderson is truly grateful. “I thought that only my mother and some friends and some friends of the cast were gonna watch this show,” he says. “It has been downloaded in 96 countries and been featured in Jet, which is like, in the black community, the Holy Bible—well, second to the Holy Bible.”
Alas, money and recognition are still hard to come by. And maybe that’s where viewers come in. Instead of letting some anonymous body of TV execs tell us what we’re supposed to watch online, maybe it’s time to seize some autonomy. Seek out the weird stuff—from sci-fi puppet shows to soaps set in unknown corners of D.C. Or just go where the internet takes us—and bring our friends along. As Tucker puts it, “Sometimes, with things online, you really do need someone saying to you, ‘Hey this is good, watch it.’ ”