That’s All, Folks: Queen Latifah Was Living Single in a Sitcom Made for a ’90s Kind of World

TV Features Living Single
That’s All, Folks: Queen Latifah Was Living Single in a Sitcom Made for a ’90s Kind of World

Most scripted television shows end in cancellation, so there’s something special about the ones that get the chance to go out on their own terms. This year, Ken Lowe is revisiting some of the most influential TV shows that made it to an officially planned final episode. That’s All, Folks is a look back at television’s most unforgettable series finales.

Who gets to be sexy? Who gets to express desire? Who gets to live happily ever after? Who gets to put a ring on their millionaire boyfriend, or finally resolve their seething will-they-won’t-they situation? The answer should be “anybody!” But if you look across the landscape of American television, the answer to most of these questions, until very recently, has truthfully been the same one: Straight white people! Mostly men! Usually skinny!

Television is a chaste and homogenous medium, historically speaking: Even recent turns toward greater representation still fall short of America’s demographic realities. As the streaming revolution has fully taken over, creators have taken more artistic license to be less living-room friendly with their content, but that almost always means more violent rather than less prudish, and there are still dimensions of human sexuality that basically never get depicted on screen. These are always political considerations, at base. Somebody, somewhere, is deciding what people do and don’t watch.

All this is to say that Living Single, the unapologetically frank Queen Latifah-led sitcom created by Yvette Lee Bowser, was a watershed moment in television. Bowser—not yet 30 when she created the show—was the first ever Black woman to develop her own primetime series. It’s a weighty legacy for such an easy, breezy show, but that isn’t the show’s fault. One particularly memorable laugh in Season 2 stems from Kyle’s disbelief that he and Max have hooked up: Max wordlessly produces the ripped open wrapper of a condom by way of an answer. Bowser and her young stars (Latifah was just 23) were old enough to remember a time when that kind of gag would never, ever fly on network TV, and certainly not with Black actors in the lead roles. Queen Latifah did the theme song, of course.

By virtue of its importance to Black-led TV, it’s a landmark show, and by virtue of a twist that comes way out of left field, its finale is one for the books.

The Show

Living Single follows the single lives of friends living in a Brooklyn brownstone. In one flat are magazine editor Khadijah James (Latifah), her bubbly cousin Synclaire (Kim Coles), and the roommate who pursues wealthy men with a hunter’s zeal, Régine (Kim Fields). Upstairs are good-natured handyman Overton (John Henton) and his roommate, stockbroker Kyle Barker (T.C. Carson, the God of War videogame series’ original Kratos). Kyle is locked eternally in a tit-for-tat feud with a frequent visitor, Khadijah’s high-powered lawyer and former Howard University roomie Max (Erika Alexander, who you’ve seen in everything from Low Winter Sun to Get Out).

Episodes dealt with the dating adventures (and lots of misadventures) of the series’ leading women, Khadijah chief among them. White actors weren’t completely absent from the show, but it was almost exclusively a Black cast most of the time: If you were to put an episode of this show in a test tube with the average episode of another show about singles in New York, the chemical reaction might cause the two to explosively negate one another.

Over the show’s five seasons, the crew have their share of ups and downs, but most of the ongoing storylines come to their natural conclusions: Overton and Synclaire’s cute and uncomplicated attraction to one another is consummated, Khadijah has a rotating cast of long-term boyfriends but eventually rekindles a romance with childhood friend Scooter (Black Lightning himself, Cress Williams).

The show was also the place for nearly every Black actor you’ve ever seen or heard of: Arsenio Hall, Harold Perrineau, Mario and Melvin Van Peebles, CCH Pounder, Phil LaMarr, Michael Jai White and Regina King are by no means an exhaustive list of guest stars in roles big and small. With its half-hour episodes and endless “It’s that guy!!” opportunities, it’s a hoot at minimum and at times a hoot and a half. But after five seasons, every premise needs to change or end.

The Finale

“Let’s Stay Together”

It’s wrong to say the show went off the rails!!! in its final season, but it had undergone a lot of big changes and was beginning to rely a lot on guest stars who showed up credited as themselves. Régine’s character bowed out before the finale, and much of the long-simmering questions of the show had been resolved in terms of relationships, and T.C. Carson’s Kyle was out as a main cast member, having moved to London.

With a new year approaching, Khadijah and her crew are all facing down big life changes, and it’s become clear that they’re all moving out: Khadijah and Scooter are together, Overton and Synclaire got married in Season 4 and Synclaire is pursuing a burgeoning acting career, and Max has decided to be artificially inseminated so she can become a mother without any help from a man. (A client who claims to be Jesus—played by Perrineau for maximum plausibility in this regard—is the one who talks her into this. This is the level of randomness at this point in the show.)

In the very first scene of the episode, the group deduces that Max’s sperm donor is none other than Kyle. It is a reveal so bonkers that I hit rewind and watched it again to make sure I hadn’t missed something, but it’s true. (Though, it’s far from the weirdest reveal in the shows we’ve examined here.) It’s a hell of a contrivance to hang a final episode on, especially for a show in a half-hour time slot. But it also acknowledges that one of the biggest draws of the show, in all deference to the Queen, was Max and Kyle’s thick-enough-to-cut-with-a-knife sexual tension. And Carson indeed returns to reprise his role, reacting in much the same way Max does to finding out who’s donated a Y chromosome to whom: Screaming in abject terror.

Max and Kyle’s love-hate relationship does finally and fully resolve, though, and just in time for New Year’s Eve. The whole crew watch the ball drop on Times Square on their TV and then slowly begin to drift out—Kyle and Max while arguing, Overton and Synclaire to go do what newlyweds do in their new place. Khadijah isn’t alone for long, though: Scooter shows up unannounced and Khadijah rushes off with him to go to Rio. It’s as if a dam has broken and the melancholy hanging over the apartment is forgotten: It’s exciting to run off to somewhere new with someone you love, after all. But Queen Latifah does take one last look back at the place, because it is also tough to leave behind a whole era in your life.

The ’90s were the last hurrah for the sitcom, a genre native to network TV in the same way a freshwater fish is native to its pond. It’s not a completely dead genre, but it’s not what it was (whether you mean to say it’s diminished or just changed). Living Single doesn’t make everybody’s top 10, but it’s important because it reinforced the idea that women who look like Queen Latifah and Erika Alexander are the heroes, with the narrative agency to desire and be desired. It’s worth looking back on, if just for a moment.

Tune in next month as That’s All, Folks! visits the final frontier with Star Trek: The Next Generation!

Kenneth Lowe ain’t never looking back. Well, maybe just a little. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses and read more at his blog.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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