Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the best of Living Single (1993-1998, FOX), which is currently available on DVD and HBO Max.
Starring QUEEN LATIFAH as Khadijah, KIM FIELDS as Regine, KIM COLES as Synclaire, ERIKA ALEXANDER as Max, JOHN HENTON as Overton, and T.C. CARSON as Kyle.
Over the years, this blog has covered both Seinfeld and Friends, two of the 1990s’ most beloved “hangout” sitcoms, launching a spate of similar network comedies about “Singles in the City,” whose personal pursuits inside ensembles of mostly unmarried pals informed their series’ storytelling. These shows were a growing trend in the early ‘90s, as the industry started catering to a Gen X demographic that was waiting a little longer to marry and spending more of their twenties single, living away from home and with friends. (Martin is our most recent example.) Accordingly, while I think hits obviously dictate programming waves and therefore the more popular a show, the more apt it is to be influential (which is why Seinfeld and Friends often get credit), I don’t look to any sitcom from this era as having a proprietary hold on this low-concept premise (not even the über-successful Seinfeld); it’s simply too generic to be hailed as an original thought — “hangout” comedies, though less popular, have been in existence in some form since the ‘60s. I point this out here because the conversation surrounding Living Single — which has typically been underrated in comparison to other, more mainstream entries — too often argues its merits on the basis of it being more seminal. I think this is precisely the wrong tactic, even though I understand it — this is a way to give the show praise that it’s long been denied. Specifically, Living Single fans often compare the series to Friends, which was also produced by Warner Brothers, and similarly boasted a strong rom-com focus that justified the incorporation of several couplings in its regular “hangout” ensemble (unlike Seinfeld, which was thematically anti-romance — an outlier). And because Friends premiered a year after Living Single but was more celebrated — in part due to its accessibility on a more visible network, which also programmed it directly opposite Living Single — the easiest method to discredit the former is to undermine its authenticity. But I don’t find that argument persuasive because this low-concept premise is NOT one-of-a-kind enough on Living Single to make Friends lesser. For instance, also in development during 1993 were sitcoms called These Friends Of Mine and Wild Oats, and before them, female roommates pursued love in shows likes Babes and Princesses. It was the zeitgeist.
So, if you’re asking me to consider Living Single on the basis of its premised uniqueness, then I also have to lament whenever it’s like all the other “hangout” comedies that came before it (from Martin to Laverne & Shirley), and I don’t want to do that either, for I reiterate, this low-concept setup is just a little too generic, too common — especially in a genre where scripts are mostly distinguishing clichéd, familiar ideas via well-defined, precise characters. As such, while I am not going to credit Living Single for being more or less original than Friends in terms of its premise, I absolutely agree that Living Single is underrated, and the primary metric on which I hinge this belief is… its characters! In fact, I think Living Single is perhaps unrivaled in having a confident command from DAY ONE on its leading characterizations, all of whom are incredibly well-formed at the start. This is a testament to the unheralded work of creator and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser — the first Black woman to spearhead her own sitcom — who really knew how to position her leads in relation to one another. She starts with a classic construct that probably feels most reminiscent to fans of The Golden Girls, another well-built female-led “hangout”-esque comedy from the decade prior. Both shows claim a pragmatic anchor who’s competent in life/career but less so in romance; her vain, image-conscious best friend with a busy dating life; and their sweet yet optimistically naïve roommate who manages to find the steadiest relationship of the bunch. And then there’s the anchor’s visiting pal, an impulsive and sharp-tongued toughie with an insult at the ready. Although this is a mixed ensemble, à la Friends, the core of the show is these four, à la The Golden Girls, and taking cues from the latter as the foundation for their basic personalities, Bowser then sets up her show for comedic success, filling in details and histories for Khadijah, Regine, Synclaire, and Max that personalize them. Meanwhile, the show’s two regular guys are conceived in contrast to each other as well — the pompous, urbane, intellectual (Kyle) and the simple, country-born, handyman (Overton), both of whom are poised — right from the premiere – to have very different but obvious romantic relationships with two of the four leading ladies: Max and Synclaire, respectively. And, again, all of this is made vividly clear from Bowser’s opening teleplay — the first episode.
Now, I don’t intend to use Friends as a frequent comparison in these posts, but here I just have to note that Living Single is much surer about where it’s narratively going with its characters, and frankly, I think it has a more consistent and confident first season as a result of Bowser’s strong and initially well-placed characterizations, along with her smart understanding of their relationships. Naturally, this is helped by a compatible cast of performers who are all perfect for their roles. Truly, I like them all, but in terms of searching for the best samples of situation comedy, we’ll see that bold personalities like Regine (played with relish by The Facts of Life’s Kim Fields) and Max (portrayed with gusto by The Cosby Show alum Erika Alexander), with or without her on-again/off-again beau Kyle (rendered pitch perfectly by the stellar T.C. Carson), tend to exist within the funniest episodic stories, thanks to their vivid depictions. However, the show’s rom-com focus and structure as a “hangout” comedy also guarantee that scripts dealing with the leads’ romantic exploits — like the pairing of Synclaire (the warm Kim Coles) and Overton (the sincere John Henton), who are incredibly solid throughout the run — are most favorable, as are entries that deal with the group as a collective, often led by the screen-commanding Queen Latifah as Khadijah, whose stories at her magazine workplace tend not to be as satisfying as those at home, with her friends. To that point, I have to say that despite all these leads and their bonds being well-defined, I don’t think Living Single does as good a job as, say, Friends, at playing to their individual relationships in episodic story — particularly after this first season, the latter half of which I’d call the series’ peak. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I actually find Living Single fairly reliable through Seasons Two, Three, and Four (before the final year’s unideal cast changes), but most stories don’t necessarily explore these great characterizations or their relationships. And because this series, unlike Friends, isn’t so dominated by weekly subplots that ensure everyone is involved in some action, I don’t feel that Living Single’s leads get the same kind of strengthening — or evolutionary narrative exposure — as those on NBC’s mega-hit.
Of course, this is both a positive and a negative — if the leads on Living Single don’t evolve as much as the Friends do, they’re also less victim to Sweeps tricks and hacky story arcs that broaden them to the point of disbelief and damage our faith in their continuities (which is important in a rom-com sitcom, where character motivation is vital to premised story). Instead, Living Single’s gimmicks are more episodic — one-off plots and stunt casting: unharmful to the characters (who remain believable), but mainly because they’re less attached. In that regard, I credit Living Single for having a terrific setup of well-defined leads with crystal clear and narratively exploitable relationships, but I don’t think its use of story, and particularly, its use of characters within story, is its strong suit. And I specifically don’t think there are as many great, or genius episodic ideas in this series as there are in many of the best sitcoms of the 1990s. That is, while the characters themselves are written well — everyone has a unique perspective — that doesn’t necessarily translate narratively. Now, again, the show remains fairly consistent — I have the same basic thoughts on the series’ strengths and weaknesses throughout Seasons Two, Three, and Four, which mostly differ in romantic arcs and the status of various relationships. On the whole, Living Single is always just a solid, affable sitcom: good characters, okay stories. Yet it’s always an ideal example of the “hangout” comedy, and the “Singles in the City” trend popularized by Seinfeld and Friends, but also enriched and enlivened by underrated, enjoyable entries like Living Single, which deserves its due alongside so many other B-level sitcoms — not the funniest, not the best, not the most memorable, but oh so reliable, with a top-drawer cast and amusing returns… very seldom terrible (which is so much more than we can say for most from this era). That’s why I look forward to sharing my picks for this series’ best here — especially from Season One, where the immediate “knowingness” of these characterizations pairs well with the “novelty” of their premised relationships, primarily in the second half of the year, which offers exciting movement in the main romantic arcs — an identity-affirming display of these characters in weekly story. So, let’s get to my favorites…
01) Episode 1: “Judging By The Cover” [a.k.a. “The Girls”] (Aired: 08/22/93)
The women learn that Regine’s new boyfriend is married.
Written by Yvette Lee Bowser | Directed by Tony Singletary
Living Single’s premiere encapsulates so much of my above commentary — for it illustrates precisely how well-conceived these leading characterizations already are, not only amongst this Golden Girls-esque group of women, but also their two male companions, whose future romantic entanglements are deftly foreshadowed in a tight script that does everything we want a pilot to do: show us how and why this can be a viable, entertaining series. At the same time, I must also note that the story, of Regine unknowingly dating a married man, is uninspired fodder for these “Singles in the City” shows — an indication that, despite well-defined regulars, the storytelling itself may not always be as ingenious… Nevertheless, this is a strong opener that emphasizes what will be important to the series going forward, and I make particular mention of the bathroom dance scene: a visual encapsulation of this subgenre of sitcom, of which Living Single is a proud member. A smart, promising debut.
02) Episode 4: “A Kiss Before Lying” (Aired: 09/12/93)
Max puts on airs — and enlists the help of Kyle — when her ex visits.
Written by Daniel Margosis & Robert Horn | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
Many of these early episodes are enjoyable because the characters and their relationships are already in solid enough shape for the audience to create expectations about how they’ll exist in story. That’s the case here, where Max is visited by her ex-boyfriend and his new fiancée (Kellita Smith), and Max — in pure “Singles in the City” fashion — recruits someone to play her own love interest: Kyle, the “frenemy” with whom she shares an antagonistic but often flirty banter. These shenanigans actually go on for far less than they would on a typical sitcom — a rare display of Living Single being “realer” than the genre’s baseline — but the idea works well, in large part because it’s sustained by the strong dynamic between Kyle and Max, whose rapport is already well-established to the audience. So, this is a fine show of characters and relationships inside a familiar but reliable story that’s reflective of the “hangout” subgenre.
03) Episode 6: “Great Expectations” (Aired: 09/26/93)
The group goes out to a nightclub.
Written by Calvin Brown Jr. | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
This low-concept offering is one of my favorites, for it’s predicated on the simple narrative notion of the group — all six — heading out for the evening to a nightclub, where most of the action indeed takes place. Such a setting then affords us the chance to see these characters in pursuit of romance — which is typically the most prominent objective in the “Singles in the City” brand of “hangout” sitcom — and accordingly, this is both a character-revealing and premise-affirming showcase for all the leads. Especially fun here are Regine, who is disturbed to find out that she’s not the only one in the club wearing her outfit, and Khadijah, who isn’t typically comfortable picking up men but indicates a charming swagger (and musical capacity) that, much like Dorothy Zbornak, renders her a captivating, humanizing anchor. An MVE contender. (Miguel A. Nuñez Jr. and Terri J. Vaughn appear.)
04) Episode 14: “Burglar In The House” (Aired: 11/28/93)
The women are security-conscious after Regine is mugged.
Written by Yvette Lee Bowser & Becky Hartman | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
At the risk of turning The Golden Girls into a regular point of reference in these posts (it won’t continue), I must admit that this segment very much reminds me of that quasi-“hangout” series, particularly in the sequence where Synclaire and Regine crawl into bed with Khadijah because they’re scared of the increased crime in the neighborhood, following Regine’s mugging. The chemistry between these well-defined female leads — and this exact centerpiece — reiterates their closeness, in the same way that such a scene would be used on the aforementioned. Additionally, I like this installment (which is co-credited to Bowser) because it’s ultimately an ensemble show, with the entire cast together — up all night — and their characterizations bouncing off each other inside of this fairly low-concept framework. (Tim Russ guests.)
05) Episode 15: “Living Kringle” (Aired: 12/19/93)
Synclaire helps her friends get in the Christmas spirit.
Written by Roger S.H. Schulman & David Cohen | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
Truthfully, I think there are episodes on this list that better reflect the series’ typical storytelling vis-à-vis the relationships within this ensemble that corroborate the show’s “Singles in the City” premise. However, this entry is just such a memorable showcase for the Synclaire character that I would miss it if it wasn’t on this list, for her naïve optimism is already such a well-established part of her persona — one that blends so naturally with a Christmas narrative where she attempts to spread her joyful spirit to friends who are otherwise too preoccupied with their own concerns to share in her feel-good cheer. Of course, as a holiday show, it hits all those predictable warm fuzzies — sans much dramatic nuance — but with Synclaire’s characterization as its foundation, it’s unique to Living Single: a sample of how this series can use its supremely rendered characters to enrich story, no matter what kind. (Lee Weaver and Sid Melton appear.)
06) Episode 18: “Love Thy Neighbor” (Aired: 02/06/94)
Synclaire is jealous when Overton begins dating another woman.
Written by Jeffrey B. Hodes & Nastaran Dibai | Directed by Rob Schiller
Although Living Single is not as bound to perform outrageous character-damaging narrative stunts during Sweeps like Friends would later prove to be, this series nevertheless does reserve a lot of its big developments for the months in the TV season where ratings are most important, and that’s obvious right from this first year, which waits until February to ramp up the growing tension between Synclaire and Overton — whose romantic inevitability has been teased since the premiere — by giving them their first kiss in this excursion, using a classic case of jealousy to finally bring the two lovebirds to this climactic moment. Additionally, there’s a lot of fun in the subplot — another idea very familiar on this type of show — as the women are bothered by their neighbors’ loud lovemaking… not realizing that said neighbors are an elderly white couple who are, incidentally, about to move… (Cree Summer and Jack Kruschen guest.)
07) Episode 19: “Mystery Date” (Aired: 02/13/94)
Khadijah, Regine, and Max compete for the affections of a new tenant.
Written by Becky Hartman | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Mystery Date” continues right where the above installment left off, dealing with the aftermath of Overton and Synclaire’s first kiss and the awkwardness that creeps in alongside miscommunication as both await each other’s next move. It takes a little help from Kyle and the girls to ultimately pair them together, but it’s a rewarding moment — earned by the narrative momentum Yvette Lee Bowser instilled in their relationship from the start, when it was clear they were mutually charmed by each other. Now, with their official pairing, it’s not only a climactic beat that validates the series’ credentials as a “Singles in the City” effort, which are often consumed by their casts’ romantic maneuverings, it’s also the introduction of a stable and foundational relationship that will ground this series for the rest of its run — a Monica/Chandler, if you will, but one more intentional, and much more conceived for their characters’ own personalities and plot functions. Meanwhile, this entry has more “Singles in the City” fun with its A-story, as the women continue to drool and compete over their new neighbor whom they met at the end of the previous outing — a handsome bachelor played by Morris Chestnut. Ahead of the original airing, viewers could vote on which lady he should “pick.” They chose the show’s anchor Khadijah, who then has a terrible time, and in one of the only fourth wall-breaking gags ever on this series, decries the audience for selecting her. I don’t love this whole stunt — Living Single is too earnest for such a sketch-like gimmick — but aside from that, it’s a funny story that relates to dating, and thus feels thematically appropriate for both these characters and the type of sitcom Living Single endeavors to be. As such, I think this half hour is Season One’s most satisfying display of the series’ identity in story, solidifying a major relationship while also playing with the other leads, who remain well-defined (in contrast) during their thesis-showing pursuit of romance.
08) Episode 23: “Five Card Stud” [a.k.a. “U.N.I.T.Y.”] (Aired: 03/27/94)
The women prepare to play poker with the men, while Regine dates Kyle’s boss.
Written by Ian Praiser & Barra Grant | Directed by Rob Schiller
Again, not to extend comparisons to Friends any further, but it’s interesting to note that both series offered similar “men vs. women” poker stories in their first seasons — and they do them completely differently. In this case, even though I think Living Single has the more “consistent and confident” freshman year, I think Friends does a better job of making this idea more character-specific, as the card game becomes a battle between Ross and Rachel — that show’s central couple. Here, it’s just an amusing way to get the entire ensemble together, pairing well with an A-story that’s actually about Regine, who’s been dating Kyle’s boss and has a different understanding of their seriousness than he does. What I like about this script though is more than just the paring of two leads who usually aren’t (Kyle and Regine) — it’s also the increased emotional depth afforded to them both, as usually they’re big comic figures deployed for laughs. There’s more sensitivity now, and in these kinds of “Singles in the City” sitcoms, such dimension is narratively vital. So, this is a good one for those characters, and a fine showcase for the ensemble at large. (Bobby Hosea, Phill Lewis, and Iqbal Theba appear.)
09) Episode 25: “A Tale Of Two Tattles” (Aired: 05/01/94)
Regine’s gossiping angers the other women when they wind up in her comedian beau’s act.
Written by Warren Hutcherson | Directed by Jim Drake
The idea of regular sitcom characters having their private embarrassments made public fodder in some form of entertainment act is not new, and frankly, there are many series that can employ this logline more naturally given their premises (like, say, Dick Van Dyke or Seinfeld). For that reason, I can’t claim to be enthused about that aspect of this story. However, what I do really enjoy is the ensemble interplay that’s granted because of this otherwise above-baseline comedic script, which not only boasts a great subplot where Overton mis-programs the speed dial on Kyle’s new cell phone (how ’90s, right?), but also a fun climax with a memorable joke about Kyle… well, climaxing… that is very funny and so reminiscent of the type of comic reveals these kinds of sitcoms reliably provide. Thus, there are a lot of good moments and jokes here that make the sum of its parts incredibly worthwhile. (Mark Curry guests.)
10) Episode 26: “She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother” (Aired: 05/08/94)
Khadijah’s mother pays a visit, bringing Regine’s mother with her.
Written by Colleen Taber & Ellen Svaco | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
Queen Latifah’s and Kim Fields’ real-life moms (Rita Owens and Chip Fields) play their respective characters’ moms in this amusing Mother’s Day outing that I appreciate, first and foremost, for what these family members indicate to us about the corresponding regulars. That is, in meeting Khadijah’s and Regine’s moms, and witnessing their contrasting relationships, we learn so much more about who these already well-defined leads are as characters, granting us insight into their backstories and shared history as friends. This makes them feel even more like real people, and the more we get to know them, the more possibilities it seems like there will be for them to exist in story. In particular, the dynamic between Regine and her mother is especially funny, as it’s poised for delicious character-based conflict. It’s a wonderful treat to see that explored for the first time, in this formative and character-forward entry — a testament to the series’ overall strength in how its leads are featured here, during its self-assured first season.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Whose Date Is It Anyway?,” which is a great early show for Overton/Synclaire, “The Naked Truth,” which utilizes the ensemble well and has a funny (but familiar) “Singles in the City” moment where Overton sees Khadijah naked (it was close to the above list), “The Hand That Robs The Cradle,” which employs the notion of Max dating a younger man (Terrence Howard) — an unoriginal idea, but naturally comedic, especially for her character, and “What’s Next?,” the season finale that puts Khadijah in between two relatively bland men and is most memorable for its cliffhanger reveal: Max and Kyle slept together! Meanwhile, I’ll also take this space to cite “I’ll Take Your Man,” a very early character-affirming half hour, “Love Takes A Holiday,” which guests Nia Long, “Hot Fun In The Wintertime,” which claims a prank war between Max and Kyle, and “Who’s The Boss?,” which introduces Shaun Baker as the recurring Russell.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Living Single goes to…
Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!