In 1998, when television seemed to revolve around NBC's "Must-See TV" lineup, Lifetime—the network known for campy original movies like Mother May I Sleep with Danger? and No One Would Tell—quietly debuted Any Day Now.
The four-season series starred Annie Potts (Designing Women) and Lorraine Toussaint (Orange Is the New Black). Set in Birmingham, Alabama, Any Day Now tells the story of childhood friends Mary Elizabeth ("M.E.") O'Brien Sims and Rene Jackson who, in adulthood, attempt to rekindle their estranged friendship. Niece of a KKK member and aspiring writer, M.E. struggles to afford raising two children with her high school sweetheart, Collier. Newly single attorney Rene moves from Washington, DC, back home to Birmingham to take over the law practice of her deceased father, a local civil rights hero.
The genius of Any Day Now lays in its innovative telling. Each episode, shot primarily in the present day, flashes back to the girls' preteen years in the mid 1960s during the height of the civil rights movement. Both M.E. and Rene—who are equally complex, deeply flawed, and three-dimensional characters—must figure out how to maneuver their friendship, despite having to sit on opposite ends of a segregated bus.
Eighty-eight episodes sensitively and fearlessly take on a number of subjects that were especially uncommon on television then: rape, abortion, interracial adoption, interracial relationships, suicide, blackface, homophobia, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although executives at Lifetime seemed initially apprehensive about airing a series with such intense storylines, according to co-creator Nancy Miller, "they went for it." Miller, who also served as showrunner and executive producer, spent her childhood summers in Birmingham, back when there were still segregated water fountains, and those experiences inspired the show.
Any Day Now, which did garner some critical acclaim, avoids using white savior plots and offensive, stereotypical characters such as black maids or black criminals. It critiqued white tears and cultural appropriation long before they became subjects for viral social media memes. And the series duly zeroes in on the impact of racism, rather than on an individual's intent.
This is likely due to the make up of the writers' room that, unlike many others, was extremely diverse. At least 50 percent of the writers of Any Day Now were people of color—almost all of them African American. "In the writing room, we got into knockdown drag-out fights, but there was always love and respect and humor," Miller said. "We knew M.E. and Rene could say what they wanted to say to each other about race. They could be honest with each other. They had conversations that we can't seem to have these days in real life."
"Our mandate was to go as deep as we could and not shy away," said Valerie Woods, who started as first executive story editor and later became co-executive producer. "We never wanted to take the safe route. We were not trying to write palatable television."
And so, Any Day Now seamlessly executed themes such as internal and systemic racism, the privilege to remain silent in the face of oppression, and racism-related trauma—themes that remain prevalent in our society, but not so much on our television screens.
One prime example is found at the end of season three, in a two-part episode titled, "Not Just a Word." Rene formulates a defense for an African American teenager named Richie West, who is charged with manslaughter after he accidentally kills a white teen for calling him "nigger." During the trial, one of the white witnesses testifies about his use of "nigga," as opposed to "nigger," allowing the show to really nitpick the debate surrounding the slur.
"One's a greeting, one's a racial slur," he says matter-of-factly.
"So when you called Richie West a 'nigga,' he was supposed to distinguish whether it was the 'a' word or the 'r' word?" Rene asks.
In that same episode, Collier Sims, M.E.'s well-meaning though aloof husband, can't cope with the fact that his teenage daughter marries her African American boyfriend after they learn she's expecting. Collier insists he's "not as bad" of a racist as M.E's Klan uncle, but the show drives home the point that when it comes to prejudice, degrees of bigotry are not a meaningful measure.
In another episode, "It's a Good Thing I'm Not Black," a cop pulls Rene over, forces her to lie down on the sidewalk, handcuffs her, and hauls her to jail for an alleged unpaid parking ticket. In a flashback, young Rene witnesses a police officer wielding his gun at her mother during a traffic stop. The episode linked traffic-stop violence during Jim Crow to the present day, years before mainstream media began consistently covering the epidemic of fatal police traffic stops for African Americans.
In one of the most memorable episodes of the series's run, "No More Forever," a Native American artist named Charlie Major (played by Litefoot) is commissioned to paint a Holocaust mural for a museum. Controversy arises at the mural's unveiling—the painting features images of the genocide of Native Americans on American soil alongside the genocide of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Woods, who wrote the episode, hoped to illuminate the connection between these two heinous eras. (Hitler's idea for concentration camps came from the US Indian reservation system.) This theme—that the darkest chapters in history are often repeated—is one delicately and frequently rendered in the show.
Any Day Now is currently unavailable for streaming, though both Miller and Woods believe it should be. If there was ever a time to watch a television series's forthright and intrepid depiction of prejudice, hatred, and the long, windy, and sometimes backward road to justice, it's now.
Follow Anjali Enjeti on Twitter.