There isn’t any show on television right now that speaks as specifically to its viewers as A Black Lady Sketch Show does. And that intended audience is, of course, right on the tin: Black women, who have been notoriously underrepresented on the small screen for going on forever.
Since its 2019 premiere, Robin Thede’s HBO series has kicked down barrier after barrier for representation, both in front of and behind the camera. The show’s writers, directors, and stars are Black women, as are those on its production team, which includes the likes Issa Rae, Deniese Davis, Lauren Ashley Smith, and Dime Davis. It’s been nominated for seven Primetime Emmys and won one, and in 2020, Dime Davis made history by becoming the first Black woman to receive an Outstanding Directing For A Variety Series nod.
In its third season, A Black Lady Sketch Show continues to blaze a trail as a show both by and for its titular demographic, unafraid to make cultural references that will gleefully whizz over the heads of white viewers. (That’s definitely a feature and not a bug.)
Take the season’s opening sketch, a sendup of The Purge in which an ad hoc army of Black women have 12 minutes to return half-finished hair products that fell short of expectations. “When I say deep, you say condition!” Thede’s character shouts to her charges. The makeshift battalion then stampedes and unleash wild war cries, mugging for the camera.
It’s a funny bit, for sure. But what makes the segment isn’t so much the setup—or the mugging—as the small moments, like when a group waiting at the cash register stop to gossip about a guy one of them met at a Keyshia Cole concert. As with most successful sketches during the show’s run so far, the humor is broad, but the subject matter is very specific. That winning combo makes the series sing—or, as the show goes on, scream, vogue, and in one instance, quite literally slap. This time around, the main cast is comprised of original members Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, and Gabrielle Dennis, plus newcomer Skye Townsend, who was featured last season. In a neat, episodes-long story revealed over a series of interstitials, they all play versions of themselves. (We won’t spoil it here.)
In another highlight of the season, Thede—herself born and raised in Iowa—plays a woman with an old-school Midwestern accent who has a pathological obsession, as many of that ilk do, with novelty-inspirational decor. “Do y’all just do what the throw pillows in Walmart tell you to do?” Skye Townsend’s skeptical straight-woman asks. “Yes!” Thede shoots back. “How else are we supposed to know how to think and feel?”
It’s one of many moments in the third season that’s both hilarious and touches a nerve—in this case, one concerning the way American society puts stiflingly high expectations on Black women to succeed in a world where the odds are stacked against them. That sentiment comes up again in a sketch about the first all-Black female NASA crew, who are so stressed out by the pressure put on them that they resort to literally eating their own.
That said, not every segment shines. Some are one-note, and others simply outstay their welcome. But that’s not really a knock on ABLSS: It’s kind of the nature of sketch. You can tell the four stars are having a blast digging into the sandbox to experiment; they share such an easy rapport, riffing off each other seemingly effortlessly whether the moment is scripted or improvised. And that spirit is contagious, making for a hell of a good time for those of us on the other side of the screen as well.