The New Era of Black Reality TV Feels More Like Real Life

‘Sweet Life: Los Angeles’ and ‘We Got Love’ emphasize Black entrepreneurship and friendship instead of full-blown drama.

Aug 20 2021, 8:28pm

There’s reality TV and then there’s Black reality TV. Whether it’s Pumkin spitting on New York on Flavor of Love, Chardonnay’s epic split on For the Love of Ray J, or Chrissy Lampkin fighting literally everyone on the inaugural season of Love and Hip-Hop—Black stars consistently produce reality TV’s most unforgettable moments. That comes with a downside, though. Despite these shows being deeply entertaining, they’ve often also played into stereotypes embedded in Black culture—that we are aggressors, hypersexual, and violent.

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Two new series premiering this week, HBO Max’s Sweet Life: Los Angeles and E!’s We Got Love, use the format for a sort of cultural reset, showing how Black reality TV can explore other avenues of Black life, particularly entrepreneurship and merriment. And although the two shows can both feel slightly cliché at times, it’s still a bit cathartic to watch Black 20-somethings simply exist as misguided young adults.    

We Got Love is especially notable because E! does not have many shows centering Black people on their slate. (And no, the boyfriends/husbands/baby daddies associated with the Kardashians don’t count.) The network seems to be in a bit of an identity crisis after saying goodbye this summer to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the dynasty it produced and aired since 2009. Weeks after the final episode of KUWTK, the network introduced its audience to a new family: The Shumperts, toting Teyana Taylor and Iman as “America’s New Power Couple.” 

The pilot introduces us to the Shumpert's larger-than-life personalities, in a moment where the young parents are both at a transitional point in their careers. Teyana has evolved from the swaggering Harlem teen we met on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 into a G.O.O.D Music recording artist who now has her sights set on being a director. Iman, best known as a former NBA Champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers, is fostering a budding career in entertainment, rapping and appearing as an actor on shows like Twenties and The Chi when he’s not playing for the Brooklyn Nets. 

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“When I retired, that was the biggest decision for me,” Teyana says on the pilot, explaining her choice to step away from music. “It opened up doors for people to come into my world who get to know me as a mom, an entrepreneur, [and it’s] bringing in a whole new fan base of people.” 

We Got Love does just that, balancing parenthood, marriage, and careers. Here, viewers see Teyana positioned as a woman who can truly have it all. She’s not only managing her production company while raising two small daughters—the charismatic Junie and Rue—but a wife dedicated to keeping things spicy with her husband. When Iman returns home to Atlanta after spending three months with the Nets, she jokes that the children should leave. “How about y’all go downstairs so I can watch Daddy shower,” she says. 

In episode 2, when she throws a small screening to celebrate her role in Coming 2 America, we see an incredibly excited Iman step up as her biggest supporter. Teyana gets emotional about Iman’s relationship to her and their daughters, considering him “the epitome of an American Dad,” a narrative not usually placed on Black fathers in mainstream culture. Altogether, by placing the Shumperts as an archetype of the Black family, the show dispels the myth that Black love only exists through dysfunction. 

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When it comes to shattering stereotypes perpetuated by the media, Sweet Life: Los Angeles is rewriting the narrative that every Black Angelenos is from Compton. The Issa Rae-produced reality show feels like an homage to Baldwin Hills, a BET series that documented the lives of wealthy Black teens in the late-aughts. Sharing its namesake with the Frank Ocean song that inspired the series, the show follows a group of friends in their mid-20s who are thriving in their respective industries: Tylynn is an event planner, Kofi is matriculating through the cannabis space, and Jordan owns a streetwear brand named Hypland. 

The show is not without some drama, such as the love cube going on between two sets of friends, Briana, Rebecca, P’Jae, and Jordan, who is such a lover boy that he wears Drake’s heart-shaped part. Still, the romance is probably tame enough that it won’t come to blows between this tight-knit group of friends. 

Throughout the series, the cast members frequent Black-owned businesses, like Nappily Naturals, where Tylynn and Briana burst out in tears as they exchange stories about the lows of their love lives. So when Tylynn jokes that it’s “the ancestors” who made her emotional, the remark provides a bit  of comedic relief, because it feels like language Black people would say to other Black people. There is even a scene where the women get their hair braided together in preparation for a trip to Palm Springs, which gives the viewer a glimpse of an intimate moment between friends. Sweet Life may not be perfect—it’s essentially a reboot of a show we’ve already seen—but it is a change from the violent version of LA audiences are consistently spoon fed. 

It’s too early to tell how Sweet Life and We Got Love will influence different types of Black reality programming in the future—maybe we’ll get a version of Sweet Life in every major city, exploring other wealthy Black neighborhoods. One obstacle is structural, because both shows are actually kind of hard to stream: Not everyone has access to HBO Max to watch Sweet Life, and, unlike most of E!’s programming, the episodes of We Got Love are not free to view On Demand. The Shumpert’s name and accolades alone should make them easier to follow than other obscure reality shows, like Bravo’s Below Deck that follows a young, hot (mainly white) yacht crew living on boats. But you have to begin to wonder why Black programming has to jump hurdles just to be seen.

Update (08/23/21): We Got Love is now available for free On Demand, the E! app, and YouTube.

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.

Tagged:

Iman Shumpert, reality tv, teyana taylor, Issa Rae, we got love, sweet life, HBO max

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