Romantic comedies are surprisingly rare on television. Recently, if a show could at all be described as romantic and/or a comedy, there’s usually been a biting twist as if the show wanted to distance itself from any trace of saccharine storytelling. Shows like FX’s “You’re The Worst,” HBO’s “Insecure,” and Netflix’s recently concluded “Love” hinge on romance, but funnel it all through a purposefully cynical, acidic point of view.
“Love Is…” is not that kind of TV rom-com. Based on the real life relationship of creator Mara Brock Akil (“Being Mary Jane”) and executive producer Salim Akil (“Black Lightning”), “Love Is” embraces a far more traditionally swoony kind of romance, even down to the “When Harry Met Sally” style framing device of 2017 Nuri (Wendy Davis) and Yasir (Clarke Peters) telling the story of their 20 year romance straight to camera.
Their love story begins in 1997. Nuri (played in flashbacks by Michele Weaver) is writing for a multi-cam sitcom called “Marvin” — a deliberate nod to Brock Akil’s time writing on “Martin” — while Yasir (William Catlett) is struggling to break through as a director. Before they met, Nuri is happily juggling several men while Yasir is crashing on his ex-girlfriend’s couch with nowhere else but his rundown car to go.
Given Brock Akil’s firsthand experience of the ’90s black sitcom boom, some of the show’s best material happens in and around the “Marvin” writing room. Nuri and her coworker Angela (Idara Victor) have to work twice as hard and with a more careful eye for appeasing their derisive boss than any of their male coworkers do. Plus, it’s refreshing to see Nuri own her smarts and ambition, especially when the men around her try to downplay it with comments that are too pointed to be truly teasing.
It’s also notable that “Love Is” centers a love story unfolding between two black Muslims, aka the kinds of characters that the romantic comedy genre has rarely ever embraced. Watching Nuri and Yasir fall for each other — not to mention try to tear each other’s clothes off before realizing it’s Ramadan and breaking with embarrassed giggles — is a rare and welcome sight.
But “Love Is” has one problem that keeps it from truly working like it could: the chemistry between its leads, a crucial component of any worthwhile rom-com, falls flat when it should fizz. Weaver, at least, is effervescent, giving Nuri a confidence and palpable longing for stability that makes her truly magnetic. Both Yasir and Catlett, however, struggle to keep up with her. Yasir insists in his talent and allure, but the show has trouble proving it through actions rather than anything he actually does or says. It doesn’t help that Catlett often defaults to a flat affect that rarely sells the emotion of Yasir’s words; from him, Yasir’s words that the show might mean more sincerely tend to come across like pickup lines that Nuri should in no way fall for.
Hopefully, the show will find a way to make Nuri and Yasir’s supposedly unparalleled connection come across as more natural as the season goes on. But given that the ostensibly romantic first date that ended with them exchanging “I love yous” is more jarring than anything else, it’s going to be a bit of an uphill climb to get there.
TV Review: “Love Is __”
Drama series (three episodes watched for review): OWN, Tues. June 27, 10 pm.
CAST: Michele Weaver, William Catlett, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, Tyrone Marshall Brown, Idara Victor, Kadeem Hardison, Clarke Peters and Wendy Davis.