90s Black Sitcoms Coming to Netflix is a Very Big Deal
On Wednesday, July 29th, Netflix announced that it would begin streaming several classic Black 90s and early 2000s sitcoms, including Moesha, The Parkers, Girlfriends, Half & Half, One on One, and The Game. Black Twitter rejoiced! Long have we waited for access to our childhood shows that weren't in syndication. Some may shrug at this announcement, but for Black people, this is a BIG DEAL, and here's why.
The Golden Age of Black Sitcoms is Important
In the past five years, television has experienced a Renaissance of diverse content, mainly centering Black stories. Shows like Insecure, Atlanta, Power, and the Black-ish franchise demonstrated that there was an audience for diverse stories. Before these shows, Black people born in the late 80s and early 90s remember a heyday in Black television. Shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, The Wayans Brothers, Martin, Living Single, and The Jamie Foxx Show, gave Black audiences representations of characters who looked like them. We watched as these characters got into zany adventures, have tough family conversations, and rotated through romantic partners. By 1997 there were nearly two dozen black comedies on-air, the majority of which debuted on small networks such as FOX, UPN, and the WB. But after those networks clinched Black viewership, they looked to expand to attract white viewers, which also meant securing better advertising dollars. In 2006, the WB and UPN merged, canceling the majority of Black sitcoms on UPN.
Before the golden age of 90's Black sitcoms, Black audiences continuously experienced a rise and fall of Black content on TV. In a piece for Refinery 29, Dr. Robin Coleman, a professor at the University of Michigan and author and expert in Black media and pop culture, said that the trend in Black television has always been cyclical. Black representation in sitcoms began in the 1950s with minstrel type shows like Amos' n' Andy, but with the rise of the civil rights movement, Black representation all but disappeared. There was a resurgence in the 70s with shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons but tapered off in the 80s until the debut of The Cosby Show. Networks wanted to tap into white audiences that tuned into The Cosby Show, thus creating shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters, with those shows came more sitcoms targeted directly to black audiences as well. However, since 2008, Black sitcoms have seemingly died out. White viewers will always find a sitcom that relates to them; whether you're a twenty-something trying to figure out life (Friends/How I Met Your Mother), or you're looking for wholesome family content (The Goldbergs/Modern Family), or you're looking for relatable workplace humor (The Office/Parks & Recreations) there's a show for you. At the same time, Black people have to wait every 10 years to have a show that reflects them.
Streaming Services Have Overwhelmingly Catered to White Audiences
With the rise of streaming services, old sitcoms and dramas found new life. Teenagers born after Grey's Anatomy's debut, know how Izzy Stevens infamously cut Denny's Lvad wire in an attempt to save his life. But while everyone enjoyed reruns of their favorite shows, Black audiences were left out of the nostalgia.
Data has shown that Black sitcoms have performed well in syndication. In a piece for Vulture, writer Dee Lockett explained how reruns of The Fresh Prince on Nick at Nite ranked higher with women under 35 than a rerun of The Big Bang Theory that aired on TBS at the same time. Reruns of Martin is the fourth-highest-rated show on MTV2 among men 18-34 of all races.
Although there is an audience for Black sitcoms, in general, acquiring rights to a TV show is not easy. Still, the response to the news of Black sitcoms coming to Netflix has been overwhelmingly positive, showing that the work to obtain those shows was well worth it.
Black Life—Not Just Black Pain—Matters
Founded in 2013 after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter became the rallying cry after each state-sanctioned killing of Black people by police and vigilantes. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade amid a global pandemic that disproportionately affects Black communities both physically and financially, Black Lives Matter has come to mean more than just a call for police reform—proclaiming that Black Lives Matter is literally the bare minimum. Black lives deserve peace. Black lives deserve joy. Black lives deserve love. Black lives deserve to be mundane, mediocre, and as humdrum as we want to be. Thankfully, that isn't the case because Black people are the architects of innovative, exciting, and trendsetting culture. Still, Black people should have the liberty and choice to choose to be unexceptional. Imagine a world where Black parents don't have to tell their children that they have to work twice as hard only to get half as far.
Through the Black sitcoms of the 90s, we saw the full scope of Black life. We saw Moesha Mitchell, a suburban teenage Black girl experiencing the ups and downs of adolescence. We witnessed Nikki Parker, a single mother who attended college alongside her daughter while chasing a handsome professor's affections. We saw Flex Washington, a bachelor turned single father, fumble through raising his teenage daughter. Every once in awhile, viewers would watch a poignant episode of these shows that would address racism, gun violence, mental health, and many other issues that affect the Black community. Who could forget the "Good Cop, Bad Cop" episode of Family Matters where Sgt. Carl Winslow, patriarch to the Winslow family and Chicago cop, addresses a fellow officer who racially profiled Winslow's oldest son, Eddie, during a traffic stop. Those episodes were never a reminder of the realities of being Black as much as they were authentic depictions of Black life.
We're in a new decade, and as Dr. Coleman illustrated, we see Black content on TV more than ever before; but will we only have 10 years to enjoy this moment before diverse stories become obsolete? Only time will tell, but for now, we can go to Netflix to enjoy some of our old favorites.