A New Appreciation for "Living Single"

posted Jan 4, 2013, 11:33 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Aug 16, 2014, 9:33 AM ]

I was 14 when Living Single premiered in 1993. As was my tendency at the time, I compared everything to “The Cosby Show”. Even though the show had a “Cosby” alum in the cast, I was slow to come on board based on what I saw in the previews. It wasn't until the show was in its latter seasons that I started to watch. Even then, I took it at face value. 

But it wasn't until watching subsequent reruns on WNYW and later on the Oxygen Channel throughout the ensuing years coupled with my own growth and maturity that I really began to understand the series. 

Now that I am (or was) a young black professional (I'm still black), a recent viewing of the series' first season on DVD was very enlightening not only in what the series accomplished but also in how it probably impacted my life in ways I had only attributed to “The Cosby Show”. 

It was a nineties’ kind of world when Living Single premiered on FOX. Its simple premise about the lives, loves and careers of four young women in Brooklyn, NY often drew comparisons to The Golden Girls and Designing Women – two groundbreaking comedy series which had recently each completed their own long runs.

Though Living Single may have owed some of its foundation to these programs, the show itself was unique in the annals of television history since these four young women were black -- and also very funny.

The Cast of Characters

Queen Latifah starred as Khadijah James, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the fictitious Flavor Magazine. Kim Coles played her naïve cousin Synclaire, an aspiring actress and recent transplant from her hometown of Minneapolis whom Khadijah hired as her secretary. Erika Alexander (the Cosby alum) was Maxine Shaw, a driven attorney and college friend of Khadijah’s. Kim Fields (The Facts of Life) rounded out the quartet as Regine Hunter, a childhood friend of Khadijah’s and self-proclaimed fashionista who worked at a boutique (and later in the costume department for the fictitious soap opera Palo Alto) while working even harder to snag a man.

Adding to the proceedings were upstairs neighbors Kyle Barker (T.C. Carson), a stock broker, and Overton Wakefield Jones (John Henton), the building’s superintendent and Synclaire's ongoing love interest.

Roots

Shades of both The Golden Girls and Designing Women can be seen in the characterization of the leading ladies – ringleader Khadijah descends from Dorothy Zbornak and Julie Sugarbaker, ditzy Synclaire reminds us of Rose Nylund and Charlene Frazier, wise-cracking Maxine has her roots in Sophia Petrillo and Mary Jo Shively while man-hungry Regine is reflective of Blanche Devereaux and Suzanne Sugarbaker.

Like The Golden Girls and Designing Women before it, Living Single had a female Executive Producer at the helm in Yvette Lee Bowser. The result was a funny and honest depiction of female strength, unity and sexuality.

Rather than being a simple offshoot of those two prior series, Living Single altered that existing template by shifting focus to the young and the black in a way that was still accessible to a wider audience -- whether they accessed it or not.

Set Apart

Living Single aired on Thursdays at 8:30pm, following the popular Martin. While the portrayal of that lead character often veered into caricature, Living Single generally avoided that – focusing instead on the interrelationships between the four women and the two men as they support each other in their pursuits of lifelong love and career success. Khadijah, Synclaire, Max, Regine, Kyle and Overton were well-rounded characters rooted in the realities of young adulthood in the 1990s.

Impact

For young black men and women growing up in the 1990s, Living Single was very necessary to have on the air (much like A Different World was for black middle and high school students in the late 1980s). For the first time (George Jefferson of The Jeffersons notwithstanding), young black men and women saw black, upwardly mobile characters in the form of two entrepreneurs (Khadijah and Overton), an attorney (Maxine) and a stock broker (Kyle) successful in what they do.

But more importantly, it wasn’t made to look easy. We saw how hard they worked to get to where they were and how hard they continued to work to further their careers. Flavor was by no means Essence, Ebony or People and there were a several instances where even Khadijah herself wasn’t sure how she would get the latest issue out. Max suffered a couple of career setbacks. And on several occasions, Kyle had to choose between advancement and self-respect. All three could be seen at times putting in late hours and occasionally sacrificing a social life but to the show’s credit, never at the expense of their work-life balance.

Even more importantly, these characters were portrayed in such an honest, positive and dignified way so young people could not only laugh at the situations they face and the things they say, but also seek to emulate those successes within their own lives.

Legacy

Far underappreciated in its time and in the annals of television history, the series and its comedy holds up just as well as that of The Golden Girls and Designing Women.

Living Single carried on in the similarly-themed Girlfriends, which launched in 2000 on the now-defunct UPN network and ended in 2008 on the CW as well as in Eve, which ran on UPN from 2003-2006. Both featured upwardly mobile black women in starring roles as strong, intelligent women who were successful within their careers or running their own businesses. Unfortunately, no such series is currently on the air. Even more unfortunately, only one season of Living Single has been released on DVD so far but reruns continue to air on TV One and the Oxygen Network.