Model and aspiring singer Erica Mena channeled her inner Erica Kane on Vh1’s Love & Hip Hop, but unlike when the other Erica did it, it didn’t end with a tumble into a fountain and an Emmy nomination.
More like police sirens and the added ridiculousness of someone who uses their face to make a living getting their eye jacked up in a manufactured “reality” brawl.
But Vh1 has a pretty clear programming strategy and that strategy includes black women (along with the ex-wives and daughters of mobsters and people who suck at dating). When the network’s scripted-drama “Single Ladies” premiered I had particularly high hopes for the show. Not necessarily award-winning hopes, but a genuine desire for a decently written, soapy, fashion show-type romantic comedy that could be enjoyed by all, starring some of our favorite most infrequently employed black actresses.
While the show fell a bit short of expectations, it will be back in 2012, and I still very much want to see it succeed, if only because it’s a gaudily gilded outlier in crowded field of “mean girls” style reality shows starring black women.
Nothing’s wrong with anything in small doses. I grew up on The Young & The Restless, watched the first eight seasons of MTV’s The Real World, the first two seasons of The Apprentice and, finally, started watching Basketball Wives after Real World alum Tami Roman showed up on the series. But Black Girls Behaving Badly on cable TV has moved from guilty pleasure to a full-blown addiction for network executives as they pack their programming line-ups with hysterics carrying the strong whiff of over-priced flavored vodka and burnt hair extensions.
Some variety would be nice. The market is there. Yet we’re far more likely to get ten different versions of women who aren’t really wives throwing drinks at each other than see a network executive take a risk on even the most basic of televised fiction.
The reasons all come down to money and the market appeal of the lowest common denominator.
Reality shows are cheap: With non-union writers (yes, reality shows have writers), non-union “actors” in the form of “participants,” and almost no cost to “sets” since your “participants” are more than happy to go into debt to create an illusion of their wealth – networks save money when they do a reality show. The shows allow them to skirt union dues and other costs associated with “scripted” dramas and sitcoms. Doing a “black” show is historically considered risky, even if you’re a proven hitmaker like “Grey’s Anatomy’s” Shonda Rhimes, “The Game’s” Mara Brock Akil or Tyler Perry. But reality shows are so cheap, the risk is worth the reward for an executive if they deliver a popular, buzz-worthy show.
The Formula Works: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also a TV executive’s most favorite thing besides cheap. Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta was an Atlanta-based spin-off of the original “Orange County” version of the series. (Which, itself, was a reality show hybrid of nighttime soaps “Desperate Housewives” and “The O.C.”) The success of the Atlanta version lead to a multitude of other “wives” based show, many starring black women. With careers riding on a show’s success (or failure), the laziest way to success it to give the people want they want, but slightly different this time. “It’s like Basketball Wives, but we film it in the D.C. suburbs, starring over-educated bourgie women who married successful thugs. Drink throwing ensues along with constant accusations of who is ‘ghetto.’” Boom! Vh1 owes me a check now. Make it out to “cash.”