Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing 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.
Living Single’s second season, like its first, is blessed with well-defined leads. But what was impressive in One is less so in Two, for now we’re starting to look for how well-defined leads can evolve as a result of pursuing their romantic objectives in story. Here, Living Single cements itself as a good sitcom, instead of a great one, for in terms of story, it’s always subpar — a lot of its ideas are familiar, there’s a reliance on gimmicks (like stunt casting), and though its regulars remain well-conceived, they don’t singularly inspire and enliven plots like they should. Accordingly, there aren’t as many memorable outings (at least, relative to others — including Friends, up against which Living Single was now directly airing). And so, the issue is self-perpetuating, for beyond weekly stories that aren’t as driven by the characters, there’s also a lack of exploration for them, as they don’t really change in tandem with the romantic arcs that typify this subgenre of sitcom. In other words, Living Single is a “Singles in the City” rom-com with a “hangout” ensemble — a show that prioritizes the development of relationships — and such concerns inherently call attention to character motivations and emotional credibility. For instance, we should be able to track the course of Synclaire and Overton’s bond, as they continue to date, eventually having sex for the first time during February Sweeps. Now, this year actually does do a decent job of handling their romance — we buy what happens, and they evolve believably. But they’re the only ones. Max and Kyle’s attraction is merely used for cliffhanger fodder, both at the beginning and end of this season, with less character support given to their maneuvers and thus less “situation”-corroboration, while both Khadijah and Regine date recurring men who are nebulously defined and thus a hindrance to their own depictions. Overall, I’d say Living Single is better than Friends at sparing its leads from ham-fisted narrative developments — where forward story movement, along with character growth, is stopped and started with little reason — but that’s also because these leads aren’t developing as much, since they aren’t as attached to plot. As such, they remain comedically rendered, but are slowly stagnating, becoming less conducive to story. In Season Two (the series’ second-best collection), that’s starting to show, although it’s not as obvious as it will be in the years ahead…
01) Episode 28: “There’s Got To Be A Morning After” (Aired: 09/01/94)
Max and Kyle are unable to hide their secret tryst from the group.
Written by Yvette Lee Bowser | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE) is its very own premiere — the outing that does the best job in Season Two of validating Living Single’s credentials as an affable “Singles in the City” rom-com, with a story capitalizing on the burgeoning sexual tension that climaxed in the finale of its ultimately more formidable first season. Well, actually, it would be more accurate to say that the climax is here — for now we get to watch the fun of two characters who profess to hate each other, Max and Kyle, slink around embarrassed after an unplanned tryst… a tryst that they’re unable to keep from their friends in a hysterical rooftop “hangout” scene that’s one of the most joyful and exciting of the entire series. From there, this script must then complete its narrative objective of halting any forward movement for a possible relationship with this pair — a pause that isn’t terribly unsurprising (especially for this subgenre of sitcom) but is going to make this year less impressive than its predecessor, for the characters won’t really get to grow from their decision not to date… they’re just going to be in a holding pattern until (basically) the finale, when the need for a cliffhanger encourages the resumption of their romance — an arc that, frankly, would have been beneficial to this season and these characters. Meanwhile, Khadijah ends her triangle by picking Scooter (Cress Williams) — who recurs in Season Two, despite not having much of a characterization (compared to the rest of these beautifully defined leads). So, this is partly a superior sample of Season Two and partly an accurate sample of why the year will be less thrilling hereafter…
02) Episode 38: “My Cups Runneth Over” (Aired: 11/17/94)
Regine considers reducing her breast size to help her back pain.
Written by Yvette Lee Bowser & Becky Hartman | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
A great Regine entry, this installment is a telling display of the series’ storytelling, for while I can praise it for taking advantage of a known aspect of a leading characterization — in this case, Regine’s vanity — it’s not necessarily driven by her; that is, it’s not motivated by consequences of her own making, for the narrative instead has Regine being recommended a breast reduction to deal with chronic back pain. That’s a comic notion, as it forces a vain character to agree to compromise her image, but it’s an idea that doesn’t really help her story-pushing capabilities, as it’s an out-of-the-blue episodic concern. Nevertheless, this is an above-average segment of this series because of both the nice heart-to-heart Regine has with Kyle — it’s always exciting when there are uncommon pairings within the “hangout” ensemble — and the big-laugh comedy of Regine getting drugged before surgery. This is what constitutes a good “character show” in Season Two of Living Single — it plays into her comedic definition, but doesn’t truly evolve her or reveal how she can drive plot. (Of note: Elayne Boosler guests.)
03) Episode 40: “A Hair-Razing Experience” (Aired: 12/08/94)
Kyle is told that his hair doesn’t align with his company’s corporate image.
Written by David Wyatt | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
One of the most memorable episodes of the year, this atypical offering includes a dream sequence — a device that this show doesn’t often use, particularly in its earliest seasons, where there’s less gimmickry. However, I think it’s justified here as an extension of Kyle — who is told by a Black colleague that he needs to get rid of his dreadlocks in order to be promoted and stay congruent with the company’s corporate image. This is an interesting conflict that, like the above, isn’t necessarily caused by Kyle’s choices, but plays into his persona, for as the smug, overeducated suit-wearer, it’s a dilemma that grapples with who he is — and also, who this series is, as it’s one of the rare dramas that expressly calls upon the characters’ race, distinguishing Living Single from others in this subgenre. As for the dream, it’s a lot of fun — especially when Maxine appears (given Kyle and Max’s unique history). Bobby Hosea and Steven Gilborn guest.
04) Episode 42: “Singing The Blues” (Aired: 01/05/95)
Max’s presence makes it difficult for Kyle to sing in a local talent contest.
Written by David Cohen | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
Truthfully, this whole half hour has a flimsy story that largely seems like an excuse to allow for T.C. Carson to show off his vocal stylings — something of a gimmick that, again, isn’t as driven by character as I’d like. And yet, it’s an incredibly memorable outing that I would miss if it wasn’t included on this list, for it plays directly into the series’ rom-com thematics, invoking the dormant but still evident sexual chemistry between Kyle and Max, which obviously remains a focus… even as the year itself is determined to delay movement for the pair until the upcoming finale. Fortunately, if this entry is a barometer for whether these two characters still have the capacity to excite as a viable romantic pairing, “Singing The Blues” proves that, yep, its B-couple is still in fine shape — as is the series’ command on its premised ideals. (Felton Perry appears.)
05) Episode 44: “Stormy Weather” (Aired: 02/02/95)
Regine and Overton get stuck in a van during a blizzard.
Written by Becky Hartman | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
A strong ensemble show, this is another excursion that benefits from a unique pairing within the cast, as Regine and Overton are stranded in a van during a blizzard — and juxtaposing such well-defined but different characters is always a recipe for comedy. (That’s one of the things Friends does better, simply because its need for three stories-per-week insists upon a higher number of ideas and therefore varying cast combos.) Additionally, there’s more fun with the rest of the cast at home, as Max has a pregnancy scare — a dramatic Sweeps notion that nevertheless is compatible with the kind of emotional dilemmas on these rom-com “Singles in the City” shows, where consequences are teased as a result of relationship maneuverings. It’s not totally effective, but it makes Living Single feel realer than it often does in Two, and ultimately, with the ensemble well-used as a collective, this is a solid identity-validating outing.
06) Episode 45: “The Last Temptation” (Aired: 02/09/95)
Synclaire feels guilty after one of her classmates kisses her.
Written by Jeffrey B. Hodes & Nastaran Dibai | Directed by Henry Chan
Following an entry in November Sweeps that confirmed to us Synclaire was holding off on having sex with Overton, this installment is the big show — yes, timed exactly for the next Sweeps — that finally makes the two lovebirds into lovers. And, to its credit, it does so believably, courtesy of a familiar sitcom story about guilt and jealousy, when Synclaire is ashamed after she is kissed by one of her fellow classmates (Shemar Moore), for her psychology is not only clear throughout, but perfectly in-keeping with what we understand of her naïve yet well-meaning characterization. In general, Living Single’s second season does a good job of slowly unfolding the changes in Synclaire/Overton’s grounding relationship, so that they feel like they’re evolving naturally. (And the arc of Synclaire going to night school is part of this as well — unlike the others, she’s being explored… this season, anyway.)
07) Episode 48: “Space Invaders” (Aired: 03/09/95)
Kyle is annoyed when Synclaire is always at their apartment.
Written by Edward C. Evans & Arthur Harris | Directed by Rae Kraus
One of my favorite episodes, this underrated half hour is an excellent display of the series’ “Singles in the City” rom-com premise, with a story that feels earned based on Synclaire and Overton’s evolving relationship — which has recently turned sexual. Now, Kyle is peeved because Synclaire seems to always be up at their place — a relatable annoyance for young singles that’s also motivated by what’s happened with these specific characters. There are a lot of funny moments with this trio, capped off by a terrific bit of physical comedy for Overton, Kyle, and a waterbed. Meanwhile, the subplot is also a familiar but enjoyable notion from this period — think: Mad About You — where Maxine tries to retrieve what is essentially a sextape that has accidentally gotten into Kyle and Overton’s apartment by mistake. Again, it’s not a totally original thought, but it’s a fun one that works for her character and is entirely aligned with the ethos of these Gen X-dominated urban sitcoms from this era. (Renee Tenison guests.)
08) Episode 50: “Who’s Scooping Who?” (Aired: 04/13/95)
Khadijah competes with a rival over a hot story; Regine is the inspiration for a new doll.
Written by Jeffrey B. Hodes & Nastaran Dibai | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
As previously indicated, I love the work that Queen Latifah puts in as the anchoring Khadijah, centering the show as its believable emotional core. I just don’t like a lot of the stories she’s given, because they often involve her career at the magazine, which seldom make for great samples of this series’ “situation,” for they don’t involve any “hangout” trappings. What’s more, if stories for Khadijah aren’t about work, they tend to be about her romance with an undefined partner like Scooter — who isn’t ideal and does her no favors. So, what I most appreciate about this offering is that Khadijah gets a comedic work plot that pairs her opposite a prospective love interest (Kadeem Hardison) who both has a personality and is someone with whom she shares chemistry. The narrative is still so-so as far as Living Single’s concept is concerned, but I count it as a victory on behalf of her character. Additionally, I appreciate the silliness of the subplot where Regine finds out she’s been the inspiration for a doll — another idea that she doesn’t motivate, but one that maximizes her bold personality for comedy. (Kelly Perine also appears.)
09) Episode 53: “Talk Showdown” (Aired: 05/11/95)
Regine and Khadijah wind up at odds after an appearance on a TV talk show.
Written by Meg DeLoatch | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
Gearing up for the end of the season, Two’s penultimate entry largely seeks to contrive a setup for a cliffhanger built upon the group’s potential disruption — specifically, a rift between best friends Khadijah and Regine that can culminate in the latter moving out. Obviously, we all assume it’s “schmuck bait” — fodder for a “shift in status quo” cliffhanger that won’t actually bring about any changes for the leads… but we don’t know that for sure yet, and part of the fun is our hope that these characters, and their relationships, might grow slightly as a result of experiencing this tension. That’s the promise of this installment, which has a big, gaudy comic centerpiece where the women end up on a volatile TV talk show and get their issues exacerbated by the drama-wanting host (played by the riotous Jenifer Lewis). As usual, it’s not a truly original idea, but it’s effective in juxtaposing the leads’ personalities, showing how they theoretically are ripe for friction. I count this as a success then, for its conflict and comedy are being supported by character — Living Single’s strongest suit. (Will Ferrell also has a small role.)
10) Episode 54: “The Shake-Up” (Aired: 05/18/95)
Khadijah doesn’t believe Regine is really moving out, while Max plans a date with Kyle.
Written by Yvette Lee Bowser | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
Season Two’s finale — penned by creator Yvette Lee Bowser — continues the rift from above between Khadijah and Regine, ending with Regine’s move. I’ve already shared my thoughts, but I’ll add that it does feel like a lot of forced jeopardy for a show whose “status quo” is unlikely to change. However, there are some comedic moments — like in the guest appearance by Regina King as a prospective roommate — and, because this story is dealing with well-defined characters in conflict, I find it basically enjoyable. Meanwhile, even more enjoyable is the subplot’s renewed goal of having frenemies Max and Kyle ignite a romance — an arc to which Season Three looks like (unlike Two) it will finally commit… indicating a smart play to the show’s identity via its rom-com storytelling, and with leads who were always designed to be utilized opposite each other in this way. Unfortunately, we’ll soon find that the possibilities suggested by their coupling are more exciting than what the series actually delivers, but here at the end of Two, Living Single is doing what it’s supposed to do (despite the strained story mechanics) and we’re looking forward to next year’s new opportunities… (Bill Erwin also appears.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Thanks For Giving,” a solid “hangout” ensemble show that’s tanked by some of the innate deficiencies with Scooter’s character, and “To Grandmother’s House We Go,” where we’re introduced to Khadijah’s rebellious grandmother. I’ll also take this space to cite “They’ve Gotta Have It,” where Regine and Max both seek some self-help, “Bristle While We Work,” which boasts fresh pairings of characters in story, “Am I My Sister’s Keeper?,” where Kyle dates Overton’s sister, “Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder,” an aforementioned entry that helps us track the course of Overton and Synclaire’s relationship, “Legal Briefs,” which has a fine Kyle subplot and a Max A-story with Phil Morris, and “If The Crew Fits,” which claims a congenial bowling centerpiece and an amusing scene where Regine meets her boyfriend’s friends.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Living Single goes to…
“There’s Got To Be A Morning After”
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!