Harlem review: A smart, sleek, and sharp comedy about living single in the city
"Female friends helping each other navigate love and life in an urban setting" is a TV template as old as time — or at least as old as Living Single (1993) and Sex and the City (1998). Over the years, many shows have tried to replicate the sleek appeal of those singular series, but only a handful have succeeded in creating something truly original: Girlfriends (2000), Girls (2012), Insecure (2016) — and now Harlem (2021), the breezy, clever, and beautiful-to-look-at new comedy from creator Tracy Oliver.
Camille (Meagan Good) is an up-and-coming anthropology professor with her eye on tenure. One year after a bad breakup, she uses her experiences navigating single life in New York City to inform her lectures for the popular "Sex and Modern Love" class she teaches at Columbia University. But when her ex, Ian (Tyler Lepley), returns to the city unexpectedly, Camille's friends — dating-app mogul Tye (Jerrie Johnson), aspiring singer Angie (Shoniqua Shandai), and struggling fashion designer Quinn (Grace Byers) — must stop her from backsliding into weepy, ice cream binge misery.
Though Camille is our entry point, Harlem (all 10 episodes drop today on Amazon Prime Video) gives equal weight to its four female leads — all of whom have messy love lives and enough professional challenges to merit their own stories. There are dating mishaps aplenty (Camille blanches when a hookup wants her to do, um, butt stuff; Quinn falls for a man who turns out to be pitching a multi-level-marketing scheme), but they're outnumbered by more substantial plot lines. Tye, who created the first dating app for queer people of color, feels deeply conflicted when she begins dating a white woman. Camille clashes with Ian over a new "French fusion" restaurant that's contributing to the gentrification of Harlem, and a stand-out episode called "The Strong Black Woman" explores the dangers of internalizing that "uniquely American" label.
To be clear, Harlem is not a show about "issues." It's a sharp, funny comedy about women who thrive, fail, and survive in the midst of our dysfunctional world. Like most millennials, Camille and her friends are obsessed with pop culture, and Harlem delivers some true show-within-the-show brilliance. The friends gather weekly to watch Bravo's (fictional) Weather Wives: Tampa — about the high-maintenance and hot-tempered spouses of well-known meteorologists — and when Angie gets her big break, it's in a Broadway show called Get Out: The Musical. That plot line has a compelling arc, as Angie is forced to put up with microaggressions from the show's white star, but it also works as priceless showbiz satire. We're treated to a pair of musical numbers, written by Sukari Jones, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, and they are flawlessly absurd. (Days later, I've still got "White Liberal Parents" stuck in my head.)
Unlike Sex and the City, which took several episodes to find its footing, Harlem feels fully formed from the outset. Some of the humor is so smart, my first reaction wasn't to laugh, but to marvel: Damn, that's good. (Be sure to freeze frame on the movie poster for The Pursuit of Forgiveness in episode 9.) The ensemble has a relatable camaraderie, which makes passing moments — like when the friends are thrown out of a yoga class by a white teacher for using the n-word — as satisfying as the ongoing story lines. Whoopi Goldberg puts her perfectly calibrated glare to good use as Camille's aloof new boss, and Jasmine Guy drops withering one-liners with elegant ease as Quinn's wealthy and judgmental mom, Patricia.
At times the plotting can be trite — please, TV, no more "drunk person makes foolish, life-splintering decision they will obviously regret" scenes — but even in its less-than-original moments, Harlem is consistently enjoyable. All the klieg light attention may be on Carrie and company for their upcoming HBO Max revival, but Harlem has more than enough shine of its own. A-
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Four best friends work to level up their romantic and professional lives in Harlem.