“Sometimes you look up, and life is different… adapt and reinvention, that’s the game.” This is the advice that Erika Alexander’s character Barb gives her mentee Ella (Andrea Bordeaux) in Run The World, a new Starz comedy from Leigh Davenport. Twenty-eight years after Living Single first debuted, Davenport and executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser (who created the 1993-1998 Fox sitcom) introduce a brand new group of Black women to TV audiences, this time with a Harlem setting and 21st-century problems.
In addition to following in the wake of Bowser’s series, Run The World comes more than 20 years after the debuts of Sex And The City and Mara Brock Akil’s Girlfriends. Although it arrives at a time when shows like BET+’s Bigger and HBO’s Insecure are thriving on TV, Run The World has a different texture and tone than its contemporaries. While many series across the networks and streaming service speak to twentysomethings (save for Bigger), Run The World zeros in on the issues that many face in the third decade of life.
Set in Black Harlem amid the backdrop of gems like Pointy Bistro, 67 Orange, the 135th Street YMCA, and Red Rooster (with cameos from Chef Marcus Samuelsson and Harlem-born fashion icon Bevy Smith), Run The World follows four girlfriends who have it all together one day and are questioning everything the next. There’s Ella (Andrea Bordeaux), a writer at a crossroads in her personal and professional life. Immobilized by her past missteps, she’s terrified of taking a chance on something new, especially in the form of gossip website Hot Tea Digest and a former flame, Anderson (Nick Sagar). Sondi (Corbin Reid) is a PhD candidate whose career and love life are on a collision course. Though she’s dedicated to her work, she’s found herself at the center of a domestic situation with her single father beau, Matthew (Stephen Bishop), that she is in no way prepared to handle.
Whitney (Amber Stevens West) is a perfectionist banker whose anxiety about her forthcoming wedding to her doctor fiancé Ola (Tosin Morohunfola) is starting to get the best of her. Type A and totally stressed out, she makes one shocking decision she’s not sure she can live with. Finally, there’s Renee (Bresha Webb), whose impending divorce from her estranged husband Jason (Jay Walker) is beginning to nick at the impenetrable shield that she’s formed around her heart. If she doesn’t open up, she risks alienating the women who love her most.
With so many years of friendship, these Spelmanites are more like sisters than girlfriends. They lean into one another for a warm embrace or sometimes even a quippy admonishment. Each of these women is distinct, from relationship statuses to personalities and fashion choices. There’s a familiarity and a tenderness that runs through their relationships, as Ella, Whitney, Renee, and Sondi never tip-toe around each other; they voice their realistic and relevant opinions about each other’s lives—welcomed or otherwise—out of a desire to see each other thrive. In episode seven, “What You Wish For,” Whitney and Sondi have a heart-to-heart about the lies they’ve found themselves entangled in. The revelations that they make are shocking, but there is no judgment.
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A great deal of Run The World’s premise centers on the towering burdens placed upon Black women by society, within the Black community, and of course, the expectations they place upon themselves. Though the characters are imperfect, they continue to push back against society’s desire to humble Black women or make them feel grateful for positions and roles they’ve painstaking earned. Also, despite the friends’ overarching desires to have it all when it comes to their personal and professional lives, the series examines how fear can inadvertently lead to self-sabotage.
For much of its eight-episode first season, Run The World is refreshing, although some cheesy and over-the-top comedic references cause occasional stumbles. There is a cringe-worthy reference to Harriet Tubman following an awkward sexual encounter. Later in the season, Renee stands up for herself at work, and what begins as a powerful and witty scene eventually descends into chaos, when it could’ve been one of the strongest points of the series.
Yet there are more moments when the series feels grounded in real life, as Sondi grapples with the inequities of parenting, Ella makes a decision at work that costs her a friendship, and Whitney unpacks some lingering issues with her mother. Meanwhile, Webb’s Renee is a standout; her punchy comedy when it comes to dealing with microaggressions, her soon-to-be ex-husband, and her fierce outfits are outstanding. The sixth episode of the season, “My Therapist Says,” is a highlight, as all of the women all speak to the same therapist (Rosie O’Donnell) separately as they examine the roots of their personal problems while trying to get to the source of the blowup that occurs around preparations for Whitney’s wedding. Very rarely are Black women allowed to exhale on screen, especially when they are going through something challenging.
With its compelling cast, homage to Harlem in both the present and the past, and a stronger back end of the season, Run The World offers a lovely window into the lives of four Black women. It’s honest, witty, and at times heartbreaking. As in real life, the women at the center of the series know that they can hold on to one another when all else fails.