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The Black Sitcom Steps Out of the ’90s and Gets Real


FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — Back in the early 1990s, I had a weekly appointment to watch the sitcom “Martin.” Though Fox repeatedly experimented with the day and time the show aired, as it sought to reach our newly coveted demographic of a “young urban audience,” my friends, and about another 20 undergrads in our predominantly African-American dorm at the University of Pennsylvania, always watched together.


Unaware of the growing offscreen tension between the show’s co-stars, Martin Lawrence and Tisha Campbell, we’d champion their characters’ over-the-top love, howl at the snarky digs Pam (Tichina Arnold) leveled at him or simply debate the merit of his character’s hip-hop fashion. We were Black Twitter before social media, making real-time, communal, pop-culture commentary without the luxury of cellphones or laptops.


This is why during my May visit to the set here of “Love Is ___,” an Oprah Winfrey Network dramedy from the veteran showrunner Mara Brock Akil (“Being Mary Jane,” “The Game,” “Girlfriends”) that takes place in 1990s Los Angeles, I felt a sense of déjà vu. There were the vibrantly colored posters of the stars of “Marvin,” the fictional show within Ms. Akil’s latest show, reminiscent of the publicity materials for “Martin.” (Even the typefaces are similar.) And the set for “Marvin” also included an apartment that took its pastel design cues from the earlier show.


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