Ava DuVernay was suffering from anthology envy.
The prolific producer, whose new OWN series “Cherish the Day” is three episodes into its first season, jokingly says she decided to explore the format for the first time out of jealousy of Ryan Murphy, who has used it to such great effect with “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story.”
“I’ve been wanting to play with anthology in some way, and I liked the idea that I could change the couple every season and even further challenge myself with different storytelling formats — shake it up a little bit. I’ve got to keep myself interested,” DuVernay tells Variety. “I enjoyed working within a contained narrative where there are limits on how you tell the story.”
“’Cherish the Day,” at least for Season 1, tells the story of the blossoming romance between the free-spirited Gently James (Xosha Roquemore) and the more straitlaced Evan Fisher (Alano Miller). The season takes place over five years, with each episode spanning a single, significant day in their relationship. DuVernay says that carefully choosing those romantic vignettes was an exciting creative prospect for her, and one which she felt would unlock parts of a romantic relationship that other series often gloss over.
“It was really fun in the writers’ room to play with the format and the black romance genre, to play with the non-linearity of time within the scripting,” she says. “It gave it the energy I was looking for.”
Rather than focusing on more obvious events, like the first time the couple meet, or their anniversary, DuVernay and her writers decided to try and find electricity in moments that might otherwise be considered less interesting.
“We have a first meeting, we have a proposal, we have an exchange of vows — but within that I wanted to have average days too,” she says. “Sometimes magic happens on those more ‘mundane’ days, too.”
In one episode, the couple’s first date at a cheesecake parlor sees Gently suss Evan out through his choice of flavor, while in another, a bowling alley accident results in a trip to the hospital, where the two bond during the inevitable hours spent in the waiting room.
“The series jumps around, and my hope is that in future seasons it can get more specific and not have to hang its hat on the big days. I’m hoping that once we train the audience to accept the one-day format, we can play a little bit more,” she says.
DuVernay adds that choosing such specific moments allowed her to better hone in on the central themes she wanted cover, most notably that of class and economic disparity.
Whereas Gently didn’t go to college and works as a live-in companion (albeit for a fictional grande dame of cinema in Miss Luma Lee Langston, played with effervescence by Cicely Tyson), Evan works in tech and drives a Tesla. Their different economic status is a recurring stumbling block, and DuVernay says she drew from her own relationship experiences to convey the theme.
“Their money and class differences become a big deal for them,” she says. “They have intelligence, education and experience in different ways, but the money is the sticking point. And for me personally, I’ve been experiencing that lately — disparities in money with your partner. It’s a real thing — people have feelings about it — and it goes both ways.”
The onscreen duo’s different upbringings are also highlighted through the Los Angeles neighborhoods their families inhabit. DuVernay, who was born in Long Beach and is a self-confessed “lover of L.A.,” wanted to center the geographic differences in the black community in L.A., which she says has long been regarded as a “monolith in our industry.”
“Because of the dearth of images over generations, because of the distortion of the image, people think black people and they think one thing. What I wanted to do was show all the nuances and array of people in our community, even within the same city,” she says. “If you’re black and you’re from L.A., you know the difference between a black person who grew up in Carson and a black person who grew up in Compton. Those cities to other people all feel the same, but there are these beautiful nuances between them and it was another thing to explore and bring specificity to.”
Other than Gently and Evan, the other main player in “Cherish the Day” is the aforementioned Miss Luma, whom DuVernay created specifically with Tyson in mind.
For a quintessential sequence in which Evan and Miss Luma dance around her living room to “Strawberry Letter 23,” as the sunlight plays around them, DuVernay says her vision came partly from a desire to see Tyson dance and enjoy herself on screen.
“I really love the idea of the respect of elders and remembering their story. They’re not just old people we go to visit; they have done everything that we’re currently doing, they have experienced everything we will experience,” she says. “It’s about taking time — and I’m experiencing this with my grandmother right now — to listen to the stories, to ask for advice, and just to play, to dance, to do something fun. I wanted to try and revive those generational ties that I feel all kinds of people need to be reminded of.”
In subsequent seasons, DuVernay says the show will remain in Los Angeles, but deal with other complex romantic situations via different sets of couples.
“Whether it’s a difference in age, same sex couples, differences in colorism, I want to explore all the different ways that we can play with talking about couples who, on the surface, feel like they may not work,” she says.
“Cherish The Day” airs Tuesdays on OWN.