A lot has changed for Lena Waithe—and for Hollywood—since 2013. That was when the writer first shared her semiautobiographical comedy, Twenties, as a series of videos on YouTube. At the time, Waithe was an industry outsider hoping to attract network attention. Now, the 35-year-old has an Emmy Award, which she won for writing a 2017 episode of Netflix’s Master of None based on her own coming-out story. Waithe has also gotten the chance to make Twenties again, this time as a half-hour comedy for BET. The show, which premiered Wednesday, arrives in a very different landscape than its earliest iteration. “This is our world post–my character on Master of None; it’s a world post–Get Out; it’s a world post-Moonlight,” Waithe said in a recent New York Times interview, referring to Hollywood’s shift toward more inclusive storytelling, and noting what her new series brings to the industry: “This is the first time a masculine-of-center black woman has been the center of a show on primetime TV.”
Placing such a character at the fore of a cable series is a huge accomplishment. Twenties follows Hattie (played by Jonica “JoJo” T. Gibbs), an aspiring comedy writer based on Waithe herself, and her friends Marie (Christina Elmore) and Nia (Gabrielle Graham) as the three women navigate evictions, dating mishaps, and workplace strife. While the dialogue sometimes veers into cliché, Twenties is sharpest when its characters work through issues rooted in Waithe’s own path to Hollywood power. The show highlights and satirizes the struggles inherent in making entertainment for historically excluded groups: Black auteurs frequently don’t get to just worry about making art that speaks to their own interests. Because of discrimination in Hollywood, creators also shoulder what the Jamaican Canadian director Stella Meghie recently called “the unbearable weight of representation.” That burden also affects viewers, who may feel the need to support some unremarkable work for fear of losing what little black programming exists.
In its pilot, Twenties puts those conflicts front and center. The series examines the authenticity of black art most obviously through the charged interactions between Hattie and a high-powered black TV executive named Ida B. (Sophina Brown), who leads a show called My Bae. From their first meeting, the two clash. Hattie’s interview for a job as Ida B.’s assistant begins with straightforward questions: an inquiry about why she wants the gig. A quick check to see what her favorite scene from the show’s last season was. But, suddenly, the showrunner flips the script. Ida B. confronts the 24-year-old with the most terrifying background check of all: years’ worth of Hattie’s inflammatory tweets about the show, including one in which she’d said it’s “basically telling women that they need to find a man who isn’t afraid to tell them what to do, even if that man works at RadioShack.” Sitting in Ida B.’s palatial home and in dire need of some way to pay her bills, Hattie attempts to walk back her critiques of My Bae but fails. Before sending Hattie away, Ida B. tells her to wait a decade or two until she has her own platform—then she can make whatever kind of black art she wants.