Has the era of the dreary TV comedy passed? Consider this one-two punch: first the disgrace of Louis C.K., one of sad comedy’s progenitors, whose abusive masturbatory habits immediately recast his show as profoundly obfuscating and not searingly honest; second, the premiere of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, which alongside Insecure and Dear White People is the third recent comedy to take on the headiest, heaviest themes—how to be black, a woman, and an artist in a culture that values none of those identities—in a spryly entertaining fashion. (Atlanta, though less female and less fun, pulls off a similar trick.) While a certain kind of somberness has become a cheap synonym for ambition in comedies largely written by and about white men, at this dangerous and activating moment black people are making TV that’s full of energy, verve, ideas, and faith—not in the goodness of the world, but in the possibilities for their characters. It can’t be easy to make TV that feels so free.
As in the source material, Lee’s 1986 movie of the same name, the protagonist of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It is the irrepressible Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a gorgeous, alluring, effervescent young painter with three male suitors, a career to get off the ground, and no interest in commitment. Her beaus are Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), grown, paternal, married; Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), vain, debonair, cultured; and Mars Blackmon, the funny, tenderhearted wild child played by Spike Lee in the original and replaced here by the charismatic Anthony Ramos of Hamilton. Nola’s fourth lover is Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera), a mature lesbian who gracefully floats above the messy masculine fray. Nola loves sex—there’s a lot of it in the show—and does still occasionally get called a “freak” by her partners, but the sense of her as sex-crazed, which is right there in the title, is less pronounced than it was in the original. Nearly 30 years later, Nola’s gotta have a lot of things, but dick isn’t one of them.
Each episode begins with a character talking directly to the camera about Nola, as occurred in the movie: how she’s doing, how she’s feeling, what she’s thinking about—which is often how she’s going to exist in the world in her female, black skin. It may take a few episodes to warm to these shaggy, alternately self-searching and self-aggrandizing monologues, but they worked for me once the show’s vision of Nola became clear. She’s Gotta Have It loves Nola but not blindly. As Nola herself says, in one of these opening monologues, she’s “a work in progress.” Open, ambitious, vivacious, loving, and also flaky as hell, easily distractible, unreliable, quixotic, and always, always walking out of situations she finds the slightest bit aggravating, Nola’s committed to becoming her best self but not entirely sure who that is yet.
The show’s first scene feels both timeless and gruesomely timely, with Nola talking about the difficulty of just walking down the street without being catcalled obscenely. In the movie, which ran all of 88 minutes, Nola’s love quadrangle was nearly resolved in Jamie’s favor after he raped her, another antiquated plot point that does not make it into the new series. Instead, at the end of the first episode, Nola is grabbed by a man on the street, and this #MeToo moment inspires and destabilizes her. She starts making more provocative art and begins a bout of deeper self-introspection that manifests itself in all sorts of ways: going to therapy, going to a healer, buying a little black dress, swearing off men.
One of the virtues of getting to make a TV show out of a movie is the opportunity to expand the world of that movie, to give each character his or her due. In She’s Gotta Have It, Lee does that, giving time not only to Nola but her lovers, her friends, her family, and her neighbors—ultimately giving us a sense not only of a woman but a community in flux. Jamie, Greer, and Mars come further into focus: the married father who grew up hard in Brownsville, the biracial son of a black man and a white French mother, the dyslexic kid whose father died early but not before passing on a love of Michael Jordan. Then there’s Nola’s friend Clorinda (Margot Bingham), a generous but rigid gallerist, who constantly rubs Nola’s other friend Shemekka (Chyna Layne)—a single mom who works at a nightclub—the wrong way. Shemekka is less bougie than Nola’s family or other friends, who have strong feelings about plastic surgery and natural hair, and her decision to pursue butt injections is the series’ most unexpectedly moving storyline even as her job in the nightclub is its most cartoonish. And then there are Nola’s parents: her grounded actress mother (played by Lee’s sister Joie Lee, who played Clorinda in the original) and the dramatic, persnickety musician father (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) whom Nola resembles more than she would perhaps like to admit. Even Nola’s formidable boss, Ms. Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza), has a small and indelible part that will forever change the way this critic thinks about speaking of herself in the third person.
The character given shortest shrift, because she remains an idealized fantasy, is Opal, about whom Nola is so over the moon she can’t see her completely (except for her Birkenstocks, which are the subject of a few good burns). This is both an improvement over the original, in which Opal was a rapacious lesbian (Bell Hooks described the character as “predatory”), and also an instance where the show knows more than Nola, whose therapist suggests Opal might be more flawed and human than she appears to be. Those flaws may be the subject of Season 2; in the meantime, She’s Gotta Have It uses Opal in a fashion I haven’t seen before, as the lesbian ex machina, a cagey solution to a problem of patriarchal arithmetic.
None of these people are white. As with Insecure and Atlanta, this is a show about black people interacting with black people, with white people on the periphery: the inessential friend, the idiotic poser, the obtuse neighbor. Spike Lee lives in Fort Greene, a neighborhood that has gentrified in the past decades, and its transformation is She’s Gotta Have It’s other subject, documented in the opening credit sequence, a montage of photographs from Fort Greene then and now. She’s Gotta Have It is very matter of fact about New York’s crazy prices (Nola’s parents own a brownstone they bought in 1978 for 20 times less than it would cost now; Nola’s paying far below market for her apartment because it belongs to her godmother), because it’s asking questions about how creative people and people of color can continue to thrive in a city hellbent on pricing them out. One of the season’s culminating dramas involves Nola’s homeless former classmate’s conflict with a white gentrifier that is delicately restrained. In a rejoinder to something like the second season of UnReal (and in contravention of Lee’s own maximalist tendencies), She’s Gotta Have It stops a situation short of tragedy, because it knows we, and the characters, can see the tragedy looming anyway.
Throughout She’s Gotta Have It, Lee has chosen to drop in interstitial album covers. After a song has played on the soundtrack, for a few seconds, in the middle of a scene, the camera cuts to the album art—to Solange or KRS-One or Prince or Frank Sinatra. It works beautifully and not only because the album art is so often beautiful. It’s a piece with She’s Gotta Have It’s objective, a creative world in which art shouldn’t be background noise and influences should be shared. Nola believes this deeply. We see her painting and thinking about her work, portraiture that gets a bad review after appearing in a group show. Nola’s issues with the criticism have merit, but the show lets her reviewer win some points, too. She is still expressing her influences more than she’s processing those influences into something ineffably personal. But that’s what we’re watching her learn to do: grow into her own future self. She’s gotta have that.