Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
How the future ‘Living Single’ reboot can reclaim the urban narrative ‘Friends’ ran off with.
You might remember this TV show about how a group of homies got along with each other and with urban life in New York City. The characters were all in their 20s and 30s, and some of the guys in this group shared an apartment together. Some of the ladies in the group shared an apartment, too, in the same building as the guys. There was occasional romantic tension between some of the male and female buddies, and some of them even morphed into real romantic couples. There seemed to be no real point to this show other than to say, This is how our squad gets down in the big city.
Some of you will immediately recognize this TV show as “Friends,” the NBC sitcom that ran from 1994 to 2004. It’s considered one of the most popular shows in TV history, alongside “Seinfeld.” Both are credited with spawning a “TV revolution” for their cute and candid portrayals of contemporary urban society.
But many of you will also recognize the summary above as the description for “Living Single,” the FOX sitcom that came out one year before “Friends.” These two shows were identical in many ways except for one major one: The “Living Single” cast was black, and the “Friends” cast was white.
During a recent talk show appearance, Queen Latifah—one of the stars of “Living Single”—announced that she is working on a reboot, and broke down how “Friends” ripped off her show:
That somebody would copycat ”Living Single” seemed inevitable. The show’s narrative was so attractive because it took a somewhat novel approach to capturing modern urban life on the tube. Before “Living Single,” a TV show focused on city life was likely to be a police procedural or legal/medical drama, like “Hill Street Blues,” or a family/marriage drama, as with “The Cosby Show.” Other shows like “Taxi”, “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and the short-lived “City” featured city life in ways that didn’t center crime or marriage-based histrionics. But in general, TV lives had mostly fled for the suburbs by the 1980s.
There wasn’t much on television that privileged the lives of the single, child-less urban dwellers who were neither crime-fighters nor crime-committers. Then “Living Single” came out and changed the game. Queen Latifah’s character, Khadijah, was a magazine publisher who lived with her cousin and employee, Synclaire, and their bad-and-boujee roommate, Régine, a wedding planner. They were frequently visited by their close friend Max, an attorney. Their male friends Kyle and Overton—a stockbroker and handyman, respectively—lived together in the same brownstone apartment building as their lady friends in Brooklyn.
“Friends” jacked that set-up, though, and moved the story to Manhattan, filling it with white characters. They didn’t just flip the script; they gentrified it. It continues to be one of the most brazen acts of TV plagiarism in pop-culture history. If Ta-Nehisi Coates’s call for reparations ever materializes, it would need to include a clause that redistributes all future residuals from “Friends” syndication to former, current, and future black TV actors forever.
While “Friends” was clearly a white simulacrum of “Living Single,” it was “Friends” that would became the dominant urban narrative. This happened despite the fact that New York City was and is more identical to the diversity found in Queen Latifah’s show than to Jennifer Aniston’s whitewashed landscape. The two shows overlapped between 1994 and 1998, when “Living Single” ended (“Friends” would run through 2004), each sharing competing narratives of city life.
For example, while the black characters of “Living Single” were gainfully employed, most of the white characters in “Friends” were dubiously employed, at best. This reflected a racial binary: If you were a black young adult living in an expensive city like New York, you needed to be an urban professional; if you were white, you could survive on creative loafing.
The politics of the sitcom cafe
While most of the plot-work in “Living Single” hatches in apartments, the coffeehouse was a central locus for story development in “Friends.” This matters because during the “Friends” run, the real-life cafe became an important symbol of the kind of mobility—economic, social, and otherwise—that white urbanites enjoyed at far higher rates than African Americans could.
Patronizing a Central Perk-style coffee shop in the ‘90s meant you had enough income to spend on a marked-up cup of coffee. It meant that you had the luxury of time to hang out in a cafe for hours with your friends because you weren’t working two or three jobs to get by. When free internet became a basic feature, you went there because you could afford a laptop—which were then well out of the price range for many working-class people. Chances were good that your cafe was mostly populated by a bunch of people who shared your privileges and skin color.
In the 1990s, the cafe had not yet presented itself as a safe or welcoming space for African Americans. It signified whiteness, or the coming of whiteness. To this day, the opening of a coffeehouse—whether Starbucks or boutique—in a black community signals that a demographic shift is astir, threatening to raise the costs of living. The defining aspects of a cafe—dim, ambient, indoors—also run opposite to the louder and brighter claims on outdoor public space found in black gathering spots like the block, the stoop, and the front porch. Indoor black congregating spots like barbershops encourage the kind of joyous banter that would be immediately shhh-ed in a cafe.
There were definitely cafes in Brooklyn, even black Brooklyn, in the ‘90s. And surely the professions of the “Living Single” characters put them in better positions than their underemployed “Friends” counterparts to purchase fancy Italian espresso. But the “Living Single” characters were mostly yoked to their cribs and offices. The characters—executives and service workers, the self-employed and the full-salaried—were a continuance of the movin’ on up theme of economic advancement found consistently throughout the evolution of black television, from “The Jeffersons” to “Blackish.” The suggestion was that black urban mobility remained limited despite good financial footing. Coffee beans were not the essence of social life in the city for the black characters: They had to go to work.
A new reality for black urban professionals
A 2017 version of “Living Single” will have to contend with the fact that social mobility for single, urban African Americans remains stifled, and in many ways is in worse condition than it was in the ‘90s. Even though the “Living Single” characters had high-paying jobs, they still needed roommates to cover their housing costs. If they couldn’t afford to live single and alone in the Brooklyn of the ‘90s, they certainly wouldn’t be able to do so in the Brooklyn of 2017—not when wage growth continues to lag far behind productivity and rising housing costs.
According to a recent Economic Policy Institute report on wage inequality, it was during the period when “Living Single” was on the air that African Americans’ financial prospects were at their sharpest. It’s been downhill ever since. Reads the report:
[O]ver the last 36 years, strong wage growth has eluded most workers, regardless of race, and, to the extent that wages have grown at all, most of the growth happened in a single episode between 1995 and 2000. In almost every economic cycle preceding and following the late 1990s boom, wage growth of black and white low- to middle-wage earners was either flat or negative. Between 1979 and 2015, wages declined 8.5 percent for blacks in the 10th percentile and grew only 0.7 percent for whites. At the median, the wages of blacks grew a meager 1.8 percent, while those of whites grew only 11.9 percent.
According to the latest State of Working America report, the median black household income fell 10.1 percent between 2007 and 2010, compared to just 5.4 percent for the median white households. Meanwhile, in 2015, black men made 22 percent less than white men with the same education, work experience, and metro status, according to EPI. Black women earned 11.7 percent less than similarly situated white women. If rent continues to outpace income, the share of severely cost burdened renters will increase by 2025, hitting black, Latino, and Asian renters the hardest, according to a recent report from Enterprise Community Partners and the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
The new “Living Single” would have to account for these disparities—an even starker picture than what urban life looked like during the show’s ‘90s run. It should also explain the other ways that African Americans have needed to navigate city life through economically debilitating events like the housing crisis and Hurricane Sandy.
Creators of the new “Living Single” can rest easy knowing there are a number of current shows that are already exploring these realities to critical acclaim. There’s HBO’s “Insecure,” about black women trying to negotiate love and relationships in L.A., where black men are constantly devalued. There’s also “Atlanta,” which illustrates what it means to be black with a prestigious college degree, but live in a city where a steady job remains elusive. The OWN show “Queen Sugar” interrogates the fraught connection between black urban and black rural living in Louisiana. BET’s “Being Mary Jane” copes with loneliness in the city.
“Living Single” has the opportunity to bring us back to New York City and paint a more accurate portrait of the real-life chutes-and-ladders trajectory of black social and economic mobility. “Friends,” meanwhile, has already born offspring that carry on the legacy of an almost exclusively white-dominated urban narrative, as seen in “Sex and the City” and “Girls.” It’s time for “Living Single” to disrupt that narrative and take over the cafe.