8 Shows From the Last Decade That Have Ushered in the Renaissance of Black TV
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Whether you grew up watching Good Times, Family Matters, Living Single, or That's So Raven, you know the joy of Black television. From sitcoms to dramas, musicals and comedies, Black-led shows have delighted audiences since Diahann Carroll's Julia became the first weekly series to star a Black woman in a non-stereotypical role in 1968. We've come a long way since then, and TV has changed along with society's ever-evolving landscape.
Culturally, we've always seen the '90s as the peak of Black TV, and that was the point in time when there were the most shows starring majority Black casts on American TV. Since then, the number of Black TV shows has only decreased. But in the past decade, Black creators have ushered in a renaissance of entertainment that's provided viewers with entirely new adventures that reflect how beautifully unique Black lives can be.
It may seem like shows such as Power, Black-ish and Black Lightning have nothing in common -- and story-wise, they often don't -- but they are all part of a shift in media that reminded viewers that there's a variety of Black stories ready to be savored. Shows such as Scandal, Queen Sugar, Pose and Abbott Elementary have highlighted how the Black experience isn't a monolith, and, whether you're a fan or not, there's so much more to be explored with Black talent behind, as well as in front of, the cameras.
In that spirit, here are eight shows that we believe helped usher in the renaissance of Black TV.
OK, Gladiators, now let's get in formation. Shonda Rhimes already had ABC viewers in a chokehold with her medical drama Grey's Anatomy, but when she introduced us to Olivia Pope and her fabulous wardrobe, she turned the TV game on its head. Scandal was the political thriller that had more twists and turns than anyone -- even the cast -- could keep track of, but even if fans couldn't quite understand its meandering plotlines, Kerry Washington and her troubling taste in men kept them coming back for more every Thursday night.
But Scandal did more than just titillate audiences with political drama, it changed the way people saw TV. When the show premiered in April 2012, a Black woman hadn't had the lead role in a network drama for nearly 40. Washington's Emmy nomination for the first season was the first time a Black American woman was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 18 years.
(Viola Davis ended up winning the award in 2015 for the Rhimes follow up, How to Get Away With Murder.)
Not only did the show put the idea that a Black female lead wouldn't alienate audiences into a watery grave as it deserved, but it also proved how much audiences would devote to it. Scandal practically owned social media on Thursdays, leading the charge for shows to actively interact with their fans online. Its popularity and critical acclaim paved the way for Davis' How to Get Away With Murder, as well as all the other Black-led shows that followed. We'll raise a glass of red wine to that!
What Scandal did for Black female leads, Power did for Black-led crime dramas. The series was created and produced by Courtney A. Kemp in collaboration with 50 Cent, and it led to an entire TV universe with four spin-offs. Not only has the drama introduced a score of Black talent to the entertainment business, but, much like Rhimes connected the worlds of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, it's created a world with the ability to evolve with each new spinoff. What began as the story of James St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a drug dealer trying to leave the criminal life behind, has become an exploration of the intricate world of crime and politics. The Power universe closely examines the complexities behind the "hard" life, how the line between right and wrong isn't so clear and how, in the end, it's all about one thing: power.
What Kemp and 50 Cent have done with Power, Kenya Barris did with Black-ish. Bringing back the joy of family sitcoms, Barris introduced viewers to the Johnson family, led by Andre 'Dre' Johnson (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow 'Bow' Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross). The show follows the lives of Bow and Dre's upper-class family, with their five children, nosy parents, and numerous famous-faced friends and family.
The show has been praised for providing viewers with a modern interpretation of a Black family as they tackle personal and sociopolitical issues, and deal with real-time struggles as the world around the Johnsons reflects the turmoil of our own lives. Much like the Black sitcoms that came before them, the show never shied away from exploring issues and pushing boundaries, but approached most topics with a lightness that wanted to educate as it entertained.
The series led to the birth of the Yara Shahidi-led Freeform series, Grown-ish, the short-lived prequel series Mixed-ish, and the side-lined spin-off, Old-ish.
Since the HBO series premiered in 2016, it's been compared to several classic Black sitcoms including Living Single and Girlfriends, and that's with good reason. Like those that came before it, Insecure took viewers into the lives of four distinctly different Black women and showed how complex and varied the Black experience can be, even within one friend group.
With every episode, Issa Rae and company not only took viewers on a rollercoaster of emotions as the cast went through their five seasons of glow-ups but also brought the beauty of a rapidly gentrifying South Los Angeles to the TV screen. Rae didn't just get fans invested in the lives and loves of her characters, she highlighted Black-owned neighborhood hot spots, fashion brands, interior design brands, musicians and more. She showed viewers what it meant to be Black in L.A., from where to eat to where to shop, local organizations to invest in and more.
Five seasons of trials and tribulations -- along with increasingly mind-blowingly amazing soundtracks -- guaranteed that Insecure will stand the test of time, and the dynamic foursome that made us tune in every Sunday will live on alongside the great TV friendships that came before them. And, much like the previously mentioned creators, Rae ensured that the buck wouldn't stop with Insecure. Her production company, Hoorae Media, has several projects currently in production, including A Black Lady Sketch Show, Sweet Life: Los Angeles, Rap Sh*t, a revival of Project Greenlight and many more.
Black Lightning (2018-2021)
We've had Black superheroes on shows before, but none quite like what Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil did with The CW's Black Lightning. The series explored the life of the titular retired hero as he returns to work as a superhero and how it affects his career and family. The last time viewers had a whole Black superhero family was Disney Channel's 2000 original movie Up, Up and Away, and the Cress Williams-led series was remarkedly different from that.
The series explored the life of a vigilante from the eyes of a Black hero, striving to capture an "authentic Black voice" with a predominantly Black writing staff. The efforts paid off, as Black Lightning gave a perspective that comic books lovers had rarely seen in live-action. Nothing in the show occurred within a bubble where racism, white supremacy and police brutality didn't exist -- the writers strove to address real-life situations in ways that added to the story. The show even made history by having the first Black lesbian superhero on television. While there isn't a spinoff to look forward to, Black Lightning opened the door for Black superheroes to be fully explored in a way they never have been before. And, as long as the Arrowverse exists, we'll hopefully be seeing those costumed heroes again.
It's safe to say that FX's groundbreaking series following the lives transgender women and gay men of color as they live out their best lives in the ballroom scene and navigate the realties of living in a less than accepting New York City during the AIDS crisis, changed the TV landscape forever. Co-created and executive produced by Steven Canals alongside Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, Pose made history by having the largest LGBTQ cast and crew on any primetime series. And outside of the acclaimed documentary, Paris Is Burning, which chronicled the lives of trans women during the same era, it was the first time these kinds of characters and stories were portrayed onscreen in an authentic way.
And, appropriately, the series made history all throughout its three-year run. Janet Mock, Our Lady J and Silas Howard, the producing team behind the series, became the first openly transgender people ever nominated for Outstanding Drama Series in 2019. In addition to the top prize, the series was also nominated for four technical categories as well as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for star Billy Porter, who was the first openly gay Black man to be nominated, and later win, in that category.
MJ Rodriguez, whose full name is Michaela Jaé, became the first trans woman to be nominated and win a Golden Globe after winning the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Drama category for her role as Blanca Evangelista in the FX series.
"Now there’s representation in the zeitgeist, in the mainstream that speaks directly to the communities that are still [marginalized]," Porter told ET when asked about the show's legacy, adding that Pose "is going to show the people who greenlight things in Hollywood that a bunch of brown and Black LGBTQ people can make a show and it can be a hit and it can be successful. And that the talent is out here."
One of the newer series to the list, ABC's Queens didn't get a chance to make history, but it revitalized that lovable mesh of musical drama shows that we haven't seen since Empire and STAR. The star-studded series followed a fierce foursome of talented women getting back to their hip-hop royalty days, which is a rarity when it comes to shows focused on rappers. Not only did the show fully embrace its leading women taking control, but it was everything fans love: fun, sexy, messy and fabulous. And while the show tastefully addressed the real-life trials and tribulations that Black women face in both the music industry and life in general, it never failed to dial up the drama with a flair that kept viewers coming back for more.
And with a cast that included the talents of Brandy, Eve, Naturi Naughton, Nadine Velazquez and Pepi Sonuga, there was never any doubt that it would bring the tunes.
Abbott Elementary (2021)
If you haven't heard about ABC's hit comedy, you haven't been paying attention. Quinta Brunson's Abbott Elementary ushers in the return of the mockumentary, this time at an elementary school. Inspired by the creator, writer and star's personal childhood experience, the series follows a group of Philadelphia schoolteachers as they struggle to provide their students with the best education with the little resources they're given. The series has quickly risen to critical acclaim for giving viewers an authentic yet heartwarming look at the public school system. The series maintains its authentic Philly tone thanks to Brunson's work behind the scenes and is a beautiful letter to teachers who always strive to do their best for their students.
Since its release, the acclaimed series' cast -- Brunson, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lisa Ann Walter, Chris Perfetti, Janelle James and Tyler James Williams -- has earned numerous accolades, including three Golden Globe Awards and three Primetime Emmy Awards.
Ralph stunned fans and audience members alike with a show-stopping speech for her momentous Emmy win, in which she became the second Black actress to win the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her beloved role on Abbott Elementary.
And with the show returning for a third season, we have no doubt they'll be collecting more as the years go on.
For more Black History Month spotlights, check out the video below.
Black History Month 2022 Playlist
Black History Month 2022: Black Podcast Spotlight
Iconic Black Characters in TV and Movies From the Last 20 Years
Black Couples in TV and Movies Who Have Influenced the Culture
Black Joy Streaming Guide -- Movies & TV Shows Celebrating Black Life