Why Is TV’s ’90s Reboot Boom Ignoring All the Great Black Comedies of That Era?

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by ABC and NBC

If you're starting to feel bombarded by the ’90s nostalgia set to invade TV over the next few years, you’re not alone. Already in 2015, reboots have been announced for The X-Files, Full House, The Magic School Bus, The Powerpuff Girls, Coach, and, if Showtime gets its way, a David Lynch–led Twin Peaks. Meanwhile, horror-film franchise Scream will be rebranded as an MTV show. None of this should come as a surprise. BuzzFeed can generate millions of clicks off milliennial-centric recycled topics like “32 Pictures That Will Give You Intense Elementary School Flashbacks,” Tumblr is clogged with '90s nostalgia porn, and fashion staples from that decade are back in style (see: Kylie Jenner’s nude lip-liner). To put it plainly: We’re all suckers for that “warm-and-fuzzy feeling [we get] at the mention of certain titles,” as Vulture’s Josef Adalian described the phenomenon.

But what if you get the warm-and-fuzzies for the black sitcoms of the '90s — a golden era that featured a record 18 such shows on the major networks? So far, black TV viewers have been left out of the (mostly) celebratory tweets that follow each new reboot announcement. The programs confirmed to come back — or close to getting a remake, as is the case with Fuller House — are visibly vanilla in both casting and style.

The exclusion of black sitcoms from the larger conversation about great ’90s television isn’t a new insult. While fans of Friends held viewing parties in honor of its debut on Netflix streaming, black viewers are still waiting to do the same for, say, The Wayans Bros. or Moesha. To date, Netflix offers none of the critically acclaimed black sitcoms from the ’90s (and most other decades) in the U.S. through its streaming service. The best you’ll find is The Bernie Mac Show, which aired in the 2000s. Some of this may be due to difficulties licensing the material, but it's hard to believe that's the sole reason these shows have been overlooked. Their exclusion suggests to the generation who'll likely grow up on Netflix that these shows did not matter in the first place.

Much hoopla has been made over TV’s supposed new “ethnic casting” enlightenment and the massive success of Empire, with its weekly first-season slam-dunk ratings and the Super Bowl numbers it drove in with black demographics, particularly black women. Even though minority-led casts are still far from the norm, for the first time in a long time, black, brown, and yellow faces aren’t a novelty on TV, and for networks like ABC with its TGIT lineup, they've even become a selling point. (Not unlike how Living Single, New York Undercover, and Martin were for Fox 20 years ago.) It's also led to what Slate's Aisha Harris called "diversity tokenism" — more nonwhite actors in secondary, underdeveloped roles. 

But it wasn’t always this way. The '90s were the last real golden age for black representation on TV, peaking in 1997 with almost two dozen black comedies on the air. On these shows, blacks were respectfully treated as multidimensional humans. They were the butler and the head of the household (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air); they were the jock and the nerd (Smart Guy); they were the geek next door and the hunk (Family Matters, duh). They were both seen and heard, telling necessary stories about the black experience in America that, as old clips from The Fresh Prince prove, are still painfully prescient.

These shows remain relevant to audiences: Even now, titles like Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are big gets for networks with the rights to air their reruns. A 10:30 p.m. rerun of The Fresh Prince on Nick at Nite last Monday, for example, ranked higher with women under 35 than a much newer rerun of The Big Bang Theory that aired on TBS at the same time, and even doubled the demo rating Nick drew from Full House reruns on in the previous hour. (The Fresh Prince also regularly beats out first-run broadcast and cable shows with both women and men under 35.) Martin, meanwhile, is currently the fourth-highest-rated show on MTV2 among men 18–34 of all races, numbers that rival what some IFC shows score on their first run.

After 1997, however, came a sharp decline that has only deepened with time — ABC’s black-ish is currently the only black comedy on network TV, and it's the first one in five years. (ABC is doing a Jermaine Fowler–Whoopi Goldberg comedy and an African-American Uncle Buck remake this pilot season, but neither have been ordered to series.) In cherry-picking shows with mostly white casts from the '90s to reboot, the TV industry is both extending that dry period and missing out on shows that could probably perform as well as some of those that are getting the nod. (Sure, Twin Peaks was a key moment in auteurist TV, but does it really have a following beyond cultists today?)

Thankfully, it's not too late to rectify these mistakes — so consider this an official bid to bring back Sister, Sister. Part of what made many black sitcoms of the '90s such essential viewing for kids is that they often featured relatable stories about broken families. Sister, Sister, a knockoff of The Parent Trapfollowed twin sisters (Tia and Tamera Mowry) who were separated at birth and adopted by a single mother (Jackée Harry) and single father (Tim Reid). They later reunite as teenagers who force their parents to move in together so they can all live under one roof. More relatably, the show continuously gave audiences a genuine sense of what it's like to co-parent two (exceptionally stylish!) teenage girls.

What would the show look like in 2015? Well, presumably, a lot like Tia and Tamera's former eponymous reality show on the Style Network, which ended in 2013. Even before that, the two maintained a thriving career post–Sister, Sister (Tia starred on BET's The Game and Tamera on Lifetime's Strong Medicine), and both have mentioned wanting to revive the show with a feature-length movie. Who wouldn't want Jackée Harry's outrageously charming Lisa Landry back on TV screens? Obviously, she'd have to be grandmother to two sets of twins. It's only right.

Josef Adalian contributed to this story.