Brow Beat

Scratch Your ’90s Itch by Watching Living Single, the Friends Before There Was Friends

John Henton and Kim Coles in Living Single, with Gateway Episodes logo
John Henton and Kim Coles in Living Single.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Warner Bros. Television.

We are currently living in reboot hell—or heaven, depending on your point of view—with new revivals of old classics being announced almost every day. But executives looking to capitalize on viewers’ nostalgia have seemingly forgotten about one important sector of ’90s TV: black sitcoms. The past few years have been described as Peak Black TV, with major networks greenlighting shows like Atlanta, Insecure, and Black-ish—but before this recent turn, the year 1997 could have held the title, with 18 black sitcoms airing simultaneously. Though there have been rumors, none of those shows has yet been officially picked up for a remake, and only a handful have even made their way onto streaming services. The few exceptions include Amazon Prime, home to A Different World, and Hulu, where you can binge Family Matters or, my personal favorite, Living Single.

In a way, the latter has already been rebooted, its premise—six twentysomething men and women making their way in New York City—rebaked into a show that inspires more than its fair share of ’90s wistfulness: Friends. The all-white simulacrum, which began airing a year after Living Single’s debut, eventually became a megahit, with the core cast members raking in $1 million per episode by the end of the show’s 10-season run. Despite its own success, Living Single ended after just five seasons, all of which are now streaming for those looking to be initiated into what the theme song calls “a ’90s kind of world.” And those initiates should start with the 18th and 19th episodes of the first season, “Love Thy Neighbor” and “Mystery Date.”

This two-parter introduces all of the core characters and their idiosyncrasies: Magazine editor Khadijah James, played by Queen Latifah, lives with her sweet and bubbly cousin Synclaire (Kim Cole) and clout-chasing best friend Regine (Kim Fields). Their apartment is also a second home to voracious attorney Maxine, as well as their upstairs neighbors: sweet, dopey handyman Overton (John Henton) and suave womanizer Kyle (Terrence “T.C.” Carson). The first part of “Love Thy Neighbor” revolves around a fairly standard sitcom trope: A new couple has moved in upstairs and is having loud, frequent sex. When Overton mentions over breakfast that he has to fix the couple’s radiator, Khadijah grouses, “Who needs heat? The way they’ve been going at it, I’m surprised they haven’t burst into flames.” But the real sparks are between Overton and Synclaire, who have been shyly tiptoeing around their feelings for each other over the past half-season. Kyle’s request that Overton accompany him on a double date provides the narrative tension of the episode, and we watch as Overton gets on exceedingly well with Summer—played by Cree Summer, who has since become a legendary voice actor—all while hoping he ends up back with Synclaire.

As Synclaire becomes increasingly distressed at Overton and Summer’s blossoming relationship, Khadijah and Regine learn that their amorous neighbors are none other than an elderly couple, who move out of the apartment as quickly as they moved in. Just as the first episode ends, a handsome new neighbor takes their place and ends up stirring up even more of a fuss than the previous ones did. “Mystery Date” picks up this plotline, with Khadijah, Regine, and Max all fighting for the romantic affections of Hamilton, played by none other than Morris Chestnut. The episode ends with a party at Kyle and Overton’s apartment, where Hamilton finally chooses between the three ladies—the victor was chosen by viewers calling in to Fox—and Synclaire and Overton, who finally share a kiss at the end of “Love Thy Neighbor,” making a decision about their relationship.

I won’t give away any more than that, but it’s fair to say that “Love Thy Neighbor” and “Mystery Date” combine all the elements that make Living Single one of my favorite shows. There’s the frank and unabashed profession of sexual desire, the impeccable fashion of the era, the bubblegum sweetness of Overton and Synclaire’s relationship, and the rotating cast of swoon-worthy guest stars (which, over the seasons, would include Grant Hill, Eartha Kitt, TLC, and Gladys Knight). But most importantly, these episodes and Living Single writ large so convincingly capture, through the chemistry of the cast, true-blue friendship. As Carson has said of the show, “We weren’t play-acting … We really do love each other. We’re really friends before Friends was friends.”