Monday, June 18, 2018

TV REVIEW: OWN's 'Love Is ___'

OWN will premiere its new original drama series Love Is ___ on Tuesday, June 19 at 10/9c. following a new episode of The Haves and the Have Nots. The drama stars Michele Weaver, Will Catlett, Idara Victor, Tyrone Brown, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, Kadeem Hardison, Wendy Davis and Clarke Peters.

Read on for my thoughts on the drama after screening its first four episodes.

OWN's new original drama series Love Is ___ is a relationship drama about a couple whose stories and identities have never particularly been told in the entertainment industry. Television and film rarely focus on relationships revolving around people of color. More importantly though, they just never tell stories about someone who is a practicing Muslim. That's the most original and inspired aspect of the new series. It's a show all about the central romance. And yet, it is never entirely cynical about the world or how difficult dating can be. In fact, it invites the audience to get swept up in the romance of its two main characters - Yasir and Nuri. Those characters just happen to both be black with one having deep religious beliefs. In these opening episodes, it's normalized and respected that Yasir is observing Ramadan. He is fasting, praying all of the time and washing his body to cleanse himself. All of that is made to look beautiful and accepted. That's remarkable and helps the new series stands out. It's sharing these stories so that the audience can see that depiction onscreen and realize that there is no reason to fear this specific religion. It can be beautiful and comforting just like all other faiths throughout the world. This is what brings clarity and understanding to Yasir. He actually changed his name after making this devotion to his faith. It means a lot to him. And Nuri is completely fine with that upfront. She is not as spiritual after having experienced many of the religions of the world. But she's also aware enough to know how to help him keep his fast during this special time of the year. It's very unique and fascinating to watch while never distracting from what the show is actually about. As such, it's a nice way to just bring different stories to the medium that need to be seen.

The new show is loosely based on the real-life marriage of series creators Mara Brock and Salim Akil. They are both powerful producers in this industry having also created Girlfriends, The Game, Being Mary Jane and Black Lightning. They have used their influence to tell stories about people of color in nuanced ways for almost 20 years now. It's been an impressive run for them and a successful career. And now, they are looking inward to find inspiration for their new series. Mara is the lead showrunner here, with Salim taking control of Black Lightning for The CW. It's a fascinating split because they are two radically different shows. Love Is is a period drama that plays around with time and is actually a satire of Black Hollywood. Black Lightning is this big superhero show. And yet, both of them tell important stories about marginalized groups of people. Here, it's such a personal story for Nuri and Yasir. They meet in 1997. That's where the majority of the story is taking place. Nuri has just gotten a job as a staff writer on a black sitcom called Marvin. Yasir is just one unemployment check away from being homeless. They live such completely different lives. But they also have similar aspirations and dreams. She wants to continue to build her career as a writer. He wants to find success as director and being able to tell the stories that actually enrich the black cultural experience. It's a way for them to connect. And right away, the show is asking the audience to be all in on the two of them as a couple. It's a whirlwind journey where that initial spark has to make them be so enthralled with the other person for the rest of their lives.

As such, there was so much riding on the casting of the two lead roles. It has to be believable that Yasir and Nuri would connect and then be willing to profess their love for each other after one perfect date together. Fortunately, the show has two solid leads in Michele Weaver and Will Catlett. Weaver is the true breakout star of the show. There is so much texture and nuance to her performance. Plus, there is more variety with Nuri's individual stories. One week she is helping her best friend Angela (Adara Victor) escape from a bad date. The next week she is pitching stories to the showrunner of the sitcom, Norman (Kadeem Hardison), in the hopes of it leading to a spinoff. All of the behind-the-scenes stuff in Hollywood is really pointed and very amusing. It's executed in such a wonderful way where it's clear that Nuri puts so much focus and attention on her career but it still being a rewarding and enriching experience for her. It's a lot of fun even though her boss is demanding and still marginalizes Nuri and Angela as the only two women in the writers room. Elsewhere, Catlett is giving a more consistent performance where Yasir's stories start to blend together. He doesn't have anywhere to go in his life except to try to keep proving his love to Nuri. As such, there is a lot of repetitiveness with his stories where he's simply trying to figure out where he's going to sleep that night and if his ex-girlfriend Ruby (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing) or best friend Sean (Tyrone Brown) are going to be helpful in that regard. Yes, the show nails the desperation that comes out of the fear of one's dreams being crushed by an industry that doesn't want to notice. But it will also be more exciting in this corner of the world once Yasir starts getting some work in Hollywood.

Of course, that's the direction the show is heading in as well. For every uncertainty that there is placed in the core relationship between Yasir and Nuri, there is also the comfort knowing that they are not only to going to work but they will still be together in 30 years. The show is told through the framing device of the couple filming some kind of special together in 2029 talking about the early days of their relationship and their careers in Hollywood. It's a fascinating way to structure this story. The wiser versions of the characters are played by different actors - Wendy Davis as Nuri and Clarke Peters as Yasir. They bring veteran acting chops to the series that allow for many of the twists and turns to be palpably understood. And yet, these versions of the characters are mostly just sitting on a couch talking directly to the camera about how they were feeling in a specific moment back in 1997. Yes, it means the show doesn't have to do too much production design of what life in 2029 must look like. But it at times feels unnecessary and a waste of casting actors such as Davis and Peters. The production definitely expands this world by relying on veteran actors to lift up the cast of relative unknowns in the main roles. That also includes Loretta Devine and Tammy Townsend as the mothers of Yasir and Nuri, respectively. Those two have some fun and compelling moments in these opening episodes as well. All of this is being done in a fascinating way that encourages me to keep my eye on the show moving forward to see how it develops and how it will continue telling this story. As such, it is worth checking out if you're a fan of this genre or wish to see a different couple in different circumstances depicted in the medium. It's worth the investment if you believe in the love of Yasir and Nuri right away.