A Stunning Celebration of Black Joy
Feb 1, 2023
The first season of Harlem, airing back in December 2021, was quick to establish itself as a fun, colorful, and poignant kaleidoscope of the modern Black experience. The series was an immediate delight that undoubtedly warranted more attention than it got. Created by Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip), Harlem follows four thirty-somethings – Camille (Meagan Good), Quinn (Grace Byers), Angie (Shoniqua Shandai), and Tye (Jerrie Johnson) – as they attempt to balance love, careers, and the general expectations of life in the titular Harlem.
After introducing the charming and dynamic characters that will anchor the rom-com series, the first season left its leads all at varied crossroads. The show’s sophomore run is given the responsibility of tying up those stories and ushering in Season 2’s slate seamlessly. As a result, we return to the series mere moments after the first season’s ending. The season swiftly addresses all the threads left hanging in Season 1’s finale, and it even manages to give false hope that everything will work out, especially for Camille. However, in the final moments of the episode when we get our first look at Jameson (Sullivan Jones), we are reminded that nothing is ever that easy.
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Season 2 of Harlem hits the ground running, putting actions and repercussions front and center. The series does not pretend its characters are perfect, in fact, far from it. Harlem refuses to let Mary Sues in the door, instead giving in to the nuance and complexity that govern humanity. The quartet of friends makes mistakes repeatedly; however, the season makes the pointed effort to ensure they learn and grow. That message of growth was apparent in the first episodes as the characters dealt with the repercussions of their actions, took responsibility, and even opened themselves up to new opportunities.
Image via Prime Video
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The entire season, Harlem does an excellent job of tackling modern romantic relationships, work, and friendships in a way that feels authentic and will resonate with its audience. While the friendship between Camille (Good), Tye (Johnson), Quinn (Byers), and Angie (Shandai) is the most prominent relationship throughout, Season 2 explores the other relationships in their lives to a satisfying extent. At the end of the day, it is their relationships with their parents that prove most interesting. Camille, despite her best efforts, is a reflection of her mother; and even with having the world’s best father in guest star, Rick Fox, Quinn still caters much of her life to seeking her parents’ approval. After meeting Angie’s family, there is absolutely no question about where her blind confidence comes from. With what we know about Tye’s background, it is understandable why her parents do not make an appearance, and that in itself is telling.
From Sherri Shepherd to Lil Rel Howery, many of the guest stars deliver charismatic performances, balancing the show’s humor with the gravity of their presence. This lends itself to the fact that the show’s cast is its strongest offering. From Jasmine Guy to Rachel True, the supporting characters also deliver fun and magnetic performances, seamlessly fitting into Harlem’s world. However, Byers’ Quinn is the standout in Season 2. The perpetually positive Quinn is put through the wringer this season and Byers tackles her struggles, pain, and journey to joy with poise and believability that is riveting. The ladies show up for each other again and again, building a stronger dynamic this season that is relatable, wholesome, and maybe even aspirational. The chemistry between the main cast is stronger as audiences see different members of the group interact more profoundly than in the previous season. As a result, Harlem solidifies itself as a feel-good series that props up the authentic experience of a Black woman today, without minimizing the obstacles she faces.
Image via Prime Video
Harlem’s broad comedic strokes are undoubtedly ridiculous at times, but that’s what makes it work. In a media landscape obsessed with the portrayal of trauma in all its varied forms, I will gladly take silliness and levity instead. Seeing Black joy celebrated so vividly and stunningly is a welcome offering of counter-programming. The series takes deliberate efforts to sidestep displays of pain, trauma, and the rampant romanticization of all the ways the system in place hurts people of color, particularly women of color. It instead delivers an escapist reality, painting a picture that displayed love, friendship, careers, and self-discovery with nuance and distinction.
This is not to say that certain character choices will not be upsetting (yes, I’m talking about you, Camille); however, the season very early on makes a promise to allow the characters to make mistakes and grow from them, and it certainly keeps its word, honoring many of its choices with remarkable commitment. By the end of Harlem Season 2, the characters are in very different places than when the second season began – happier, better places… at least until a cliffhanger closing that immediately demands answers (and a third season).
Season 2 of Harlem premieres February 3 on Prime Video.
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