Tracy Oliver’s latest series Harlem (out now on Prime Video) has arrived on our screens just in time to help soften the blow of knowing that this season of Insecure will be its last. Although the ending of the beloved HBO series will leave a sizeable hole in a lot of our hearts, we are entering another era of Black, female friendships being depicted on television. Harlem invites viewers to get to know a new group of girlfriends as they navigate what success, love, and friendship look like in present-day Harlem.
Meagan Good plays Camille, an ambitious anthropology professor whose awkward moments conjure images of an Issa Dee/Carrie Bradshaw-esque main character. Jerrie Johnson portrays a lesbian tech entrepreneur with a habit of serial dating (it’s giving a queer, Black Samantha) and avoiding commitment. Grace Byers plays Quinn, a hopeless romantic and fashion designer whose uptight ways and picky attitude often block her blessings. And finally, Shoniqua Shandai plays the hilarious Angie, a singer struggling for work while living on Quinn’s couch.
Starting with Living Single, television that centers on authentic relationships between Black women has turned outdated stereotypes on its head. Shows like Living Single or Girlfriends, and now Harlem, Insecure, and the Starz series Run the World, depict Blackness as anything but monolithic. Instead, these friend groups represent the myriad of personalities, interests, and desires of the modern Black woman. These friends show the importance of community and sisterhood as tools for survival.
As Kelee Terrell wrote for Vogue, “In a world that doesn’t always value, respect, and understand us, we need each other to be whole. We need a space where we don’t have to worry about being labeled angry, unlovable, nappy, or emasculating. We need a space where our interests, issues, fears, and lives are always at the center. Most importantly, we need a space where we are enough. And as Insecure’s Issa and Molly remind us—those spaces are the ones we create with each other.”
While watching Harlem, I immediately attempted to align with a character that reminded me of myself. Like most shows that follow the Living Single formula of combining characters of varying socioeconomic statuses and idiosyncrasies, the women that make up the friend group in Harlem have very specific personalities.
The relatability of the women on these shows, and the dynamic of their relationship, is one of the main reasons they’ve gained popularity. Audiences cling to their favorite characters because they see themselves and their worlds being reflected on screen. Seeing Black women exist in various ways that sometimes contrast each other is something that is refreshing for audiences.
Although characters like Issa from Insecure, Joan from Girlfriends, or Khadijah from Living Single are often framed as the main characters, and leave a lasting imprint on fans, it’s hard to ignore how iconic the peripheral characters of these shows are.
Shandai’s Angie from Harlem follows in the footsteps of Toni from Girlfriends and Kelli from Insecure as a true scene-stealer whose one-liners serve as comedic glue for the whole series. Angie, Kelli, and Toni are as important as their main-character counterparts as they exemplify the rich experience that is being a Black woman in America.
Characters like Kelli and Angie are near and dear to my heart. As a kid who loved watching TV, I rarely related to the main characters. I have never felt like the loveable girl next door with the right amount of confidence and self-depreciation who is desired and chased after by a slew of men. Instead, I saw myself in the characters with loud personalities and dramatic senses of humor who prioritized work or play over love. I saw myself in the characters that served as support to the main character, those that contrasted what was predictable while effortlessly carrying the series with their comedic timing.
The humorous eccentric friend is one of my favorite Hollywood tropes, especially when portrayed on Black television. This is not to be confused with the problematic “Black best friend” trope that is too often utilized as an attempt at diversity, or the “quirky best friend” trope that uses secondary characters simply as a foil to the main. While similar to “the quirky best friend,” I believe that characters like Kelli and Angie are more three-dimensional. They aren’t crafted to be the opposite of the main character, they’re just entirely different people. Kelli is not the opposite of Issa, she’s on an entirely different wave.
As Insecure wraps, I’ve seen so many tweets about Kelli being the most relatable (and funniest) character on the show. Of course, I agree. Natasha Rothwell plays the role expertly and many of her scenes are fan favorites. In an interview with gal-dem, Rothwell spoke about why she considers Kelli to be a “character, not a caricature.”
Rothwell said: “She’s very consistent. She’s body positive. She rides for her friend but she’s never self-deprecating. She is not the punchline of her jokes – she’s in control. I think those are some really key differences to that trope that I think people are wanting to lump Kelli into.”
Rothwell hit the nail on the head describing why Kelli is so relatable and why I see so much of myself in her. Even in the first episode of Insecure’s latest season, there was a scene that resonated with my real-life experience in my own friend groups. At one point Kelli claps back with exasperation after being misunderstood by her friends. She says: “Y’all are missing the point. As always. Is everything I do a joke to y’all?” This moment reminded me of so many instances where I wasn’t given as much grace as I needed because I am so often viewed as “the funny friend.”
Angie’s character in Harlem gives me the same energy as Kelli from Insecure. Her personality is boisterous and colorful, not phased by love and relationships with the same intensity as her counterparts. Her situation is more reflective of the general population: she doesn’t have family money, a job at a prestigious university, or the profits of a million-dollar dating app to fall back on. Despite this, she’s still characterized as their equal. Her storyline is proving to be the funniest, providing the main laugh-out-loud moments on the show.
Shandai plays Angie similarly to Rothwell, using her natural abilities to bring light to an already vibrant character. Although we may be saying goodbye to Kelli’s unforgettable moments, I’m excited to welcome Angie into my friend group.