The Missed Opportunity of Love Is

The OWN drama billed itself as a celebration of a complicated but relatable real-life romance. Abuse allegations against one of its creators made the show’s premise a queasier proposition.

Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil at the premiere of 'Love Is'
Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil at the premiere of Love Is (David Livingston / Getty)

In June, the airy romantic drama Love Is joined a slate of original scripted programming at OWN, the television network co-owned by Oprah Winfrey. The series, executive-produced by the husband-and-wife pair Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, was billed as a celebration of real-life romance and the journey of sustaining it. Its summertime arrival drew a wealth of excitement from fans of the veteran entertainment duo, who had previously collaborated on such series as Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane.

Among the show’s champions was Winfrey herself. At its Hollywood premiere, Winfrey spoke effusively about her hopes for the series: “Mara walked in with this story about her actual courtship with Salim, and before she even finished the pitch, I said, ‘Yes, I’m in,’” Winfrey said of her first meeting with the showrunner. “I think the intimacy, the tenderness, the true affection, the real trust, and the most important—wanting you to be the best you can—that’s what real love is.” But while Love Is was renewed for a second season in July, OWN recently announced it would be canceling the show in the wake of allegations against Salim Akil. “OWN has decided not to move forward with the second season of Love Is,” the network said in a statement. Although OWN did not name Akil’s alleged abuse as the reason for the cancellation, the timing of the statement and its reference to the show’s (now seemingly compromised) inspiration—“the real-live love story” of the Akils—suggested a link.

In late November, news surfaced of a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by the actor Amber Dixon Brenner; in it, she alleged that she and Salim Akil were involved in a 10-year relationship during which he physically and sexually abused her. The lawsuit describes graphic assaults; Brenner claimed Akil often slapped her, forced her to perform oral sex, threatened her life, and once sodomized her against her will on the patio outside his home on Martha’s Vineyard. (Salim Akil has denied the allegations in statements through his lawyers.) The complaint also contended that Akil had stolen portions of the 2015 script for Luv & Perversity in the East Village, which Brenner had written partially based on both the affection she felt and the abuse she says she endured during the relationship. Brenner alleged that he’d used her script for both OWN’s Love Is and Documenting Love, a series the Akils pitched to ABC but ultimately didn’t produce.

Though the show’s stated ambitions are now difficult to extricate from the allegations against one of its co-creators, Love Is once seemed like an earnest exploration of one couple’s relatably complicated romance. Set in ’90s Los Angeles, the series followed Nuri (Michele Weaver), a bubbly television writer who commits far more easily to her job than to any relationship, and Yasir (Will Catlett), an aspiring director who struggles to maintain both employment and honest relationships. While the season showcased the multiple barriers in their way, the two manage to navigate the pitfalls of love by leaning into its promises. Told primarily through extended flashbacks, the show was framed as a revisiting of the early years of Nuri and Yasir’s romance, timed to the pair’s 20th anniversary.

At the time of its premiere, Love Is registered to some critics (myself included) as saccharine but benign. Throughout the show’s run, the couple, who have been married since 1999, repeated a set of familiar refrains. They championed the importance of openness in art and emphasized the necessity of vulnerability in intimate relationships, as well as the rarity of finding programming that explores what happens after the oft-chased happy ending. “We know the guy gets the girl, the girl gets the guy, but you didn’t tell us how to do the rest of it!” Mara Brock Akil said of some post-’90s romances in an interview the pair did with Winfrey. “I wanna honestly answer it, because I think the audience is now ready for the truth. They may be able to handle the truth!”

For his part, Salim Akil underscored the importance of not adhering to strict blueprints when it comes to love: “I think that designing your own relationship for yourself, I think hopefully this will inspire people to do that.” In a television landscape characterized by darkness (both literal and figurative), it felt a tad discourteous—or at least unnecessary—to critically disparage the couple’s somewhat cloying rendering of their own romance. Why bother broadcasting an eye roll when schmaltz was likely the worst of it?

But following the news of Brenner’s allegations, it’s hard not to feel queasy when considering the show’s central dogma—and one plot point in particular. The actor’s claims about Akil are particularly disturbing given the prominence that sexual violence plays in the series. Toward the end of the season’s penultimate episode, Nuri wakes from a nightmare and tearfully confesses to Yasir that she was molested as a child. “We have more in common than you think, Nuri,” he replies. The two embrace, and the shared revelation is understood to have paved the way for a deeper kind of closeness. “Sometimes I ask for a sign to validate that I’m on the right path,” the present-day Nuri says in a reflection on the ’90s flashback. “That moment, God confirmed that we were meant for each other, not because we shared a similar experience but because we made space for each other that night to be honest and vulnerable.”

That Nuri and Yasir, two black protagonists in a romantic series, would admit to histories of sexual trauma without fear of judgment was a story line Brock Akil said she felt both attached to and challenged by. “This is probably one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made in my creative career, especially when I’m telling the inspired-by version of our story, to be fully honest about who we are as individuals … ” the writer-director said in one of the show’s behind-the-scenes web clips. “For both me and Salim being survivors of sexual abuse, it’s a big part of who we are. It’s also a part of the beauty, the resiliency of who we are, and why we fight so hard and why I’m so thankful to God that we found each other, because we’ve been able to heal through our relationship. You can not only heal from it—we can turn such pain into love, and we can also talk about how to survive it.”

But if, as Brenner alleges, Brock Akil has long been aware of her husband’s abuse, whose survival had the showrunner been prioritizing? In the Love Is rendering of the Akils’ relationship, the pair’s victimhood and attendant healing take precedence over any possible harm either has committed. It’s not uncommon to write one’s transgressions out of artistic retellings, but Love Is didn’t just fail to mention the alleged harms of its creators—it also profited from them. The show marketed itself as a love story unafraid to excavate the ghosts that haunt its protagonists; if the allegations of Salim’s behavior are indeed true, then Love Is missed opportunities for both interpersonal accountability and artistic achievement. In light of the series’ sentimental promotional script, the possibility of the former misstep feels especially pernicious.

Brock Akil has made only one cryptic reference to the Love Is news. In an Instagram post shared shortly after OWN’s statement about the show’s cancellation, she wrote, “I am saddened that this great group of #artists and #storytellers will no longer get to create together on this project in this way.” Brock Akil, who has been vocal about harassment in Hollywood following the Harvey Weinstein reports last year, has not addressed her husband’s alleged actions (or the claims that she had been contemporaneously aware of them).

For now, the future of both Brenner’s lawsuit and the Akils’ standing within Hollywood, and particularly black Hollywood, remains uncertain. Salim Akil is reportedly staying on as showrunner of Black Lightning after an internal investigation by Warner Bros., but Love Is has become impossible to separate from his alleged actions. Nuri and Yasir, however complex their traumas and their love for each other, do not exist except as projections of Mara and Salim. Whatever healing the characters may have attained—for themselves and for viewers—has been thwarted. “It’s a terrible situation that I was ever in the predicament of having to call him out and her out,” Brenner said to Deadline after the show’s cancellation. “It’s tragic to me that these things ever happened.”