In one episode of Black & Sexy TV’s The Couple, Dude and Chick bicker over space in their small bathroom. In another they have a tit-for-tat over what side dishes to order with lunch. Two people, one location and a common scenario comprise most episodes of The Couple.
“It’s about two people living together. Doesn’t matter what their names are. Doesn’t matter how old they are. Doesn’t matter where they live. They could be anybody,” creator Jeanine Daniels said when I met up with her and the Black & Sexy team in Los Angeles last month. “Anybody could relate to them.”
Welcome to black television during the rise of YouTube, or at least that’s the hope of Dennis Dortch, director of 2008′s A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy and creator of the YouTube channel Black & Sexy TV.
Television today is brimming with black sitcoms. TV Land just premiered The Soul Man with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash, new networks like Bounce TV are already showing original scripted programs and older networks like BET are ordering more (and more channels are premiering every year). None of these shows have been as buzzy or relevant as classic series from the eighties and nineties, from The Cosby Show to Martin. They’re passable and pleasurable, but few could be called new or innovative.
Maybe it’s because our 300-channel universe demands fresher, fleshier shows, and here the web is picking up steam. Web showrunners are innovating largely out of view of cable network executives, from the diverse oeuvre of Al Thompson to the roaring success of Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl, now releasing its second season on Pharrell’s premium iamOTHER channel.
Black & Sexy TV has spent the past year carving out a clear niche amidst rising competition among black web series: focusing on artsy realism that shares more in common with Louie than Let’s Stay Together.
“I really wanted to showcase black people in a certain way. Black is beautiful,” Dennis Dortch said.
Black & Sexy already has a full slate of programs, with The Couple and The Number leading the pack and other’s like The Conversation filling out the slate. The idea for the network arose from Dortch’s feature film of the same name. Dortch has practicing film for years, motivated by demand for his signature brand of casual, relatable realism showcasing black actors. Frustrated by film distribution Dortch originally developed the web shows as off-shoots of his feature called Sexy B-Sides, a reference to 70s-era black aesthetics and culture.
Black & Sexy launched as a standalone website in 2009, right as black web series were starting to take off — it was the year BET released their first series, Buppies, from Julian Breece (also the year I wrote about “The New Black TV Guide” for The Root). Self-distribution was challenging, though, so Dortch relaunched the network on YouTube last year. Shortly after, Shadow & Act started publicizing their shows. People responded. Issa Rae got involved (with Dortch also directing a high-profile episode of Awkward Black Girl). Black & Sexy TV now has about 10,000 YouTube subscribers.
The programs on Black & Sexy TV are broad and simple enough to allow the team some flexibility. They’ve built up enough content to release episodes weekly, ending this month. After that the team plans to embark on a Kickstarter campaign to fund a feature-length version of The Couple.
The creators behind Black & Sexy share a range of inspirations. Daniels named Seinfeld as a key source for its focus on mundane comedy; Dortch cited Melvin Van Peebles and actress-producer Numa Perrier (star of the The Couple) cited contemporary TV dramas for their intimate character portrayals that demand audiences trust the writers behind-the-scenes.
“We all want quirky stuff. That’s basically what it is,” Perrier said.
Right now, Black & Sexy plans to keep active across media while maintaining the YouTube channel as a home base. It’s a slow build, they admit, but they’re hoping to maybe catch on to the second or third wave of YouTube’s premium content investments, particularly since there are few black-oriented or black-run channels, save for a few from big names like Pharrell and Shaquille O’Neal.
“We’re building a world,” Dortch said. ”There’s a value in it.”