The idea of a series starring Black characters on a historically Black, monied island that’s completely unconcerned with the white power structures beyond it is a juicy one. Created by Karin Gist of Fox’s “Star” and “Revenge,” and executive produced by Lee Daniels, “Our Kind of People” embraces its singularity. Whereas something like HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl” takes pains to diversify the typically white social strata of the Upper East Side, “Our Kind of People” unfolds in the Oak Bluffs corner of Martha’s Vineyard, where the “Black elite” have long established their wealthy bonafides. In theory, adapting Lawrence Otis Graham’s history of the area (“Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class”) into a primetime soap opera is a sharp idea. In execution, at least in the first two episodes screened ahead of the show’s Sept. 21 linear premiere, “Our Kind of People” depends so heavily on exposition and constant plot machinations that it barely gives itself room to breathe.
Case in point: the very first line of the series from Nikki Vaughn (Alana Bright), a teenager moving to the Vineyard with her mother Angela (Yaya DaCosta) and aunt Patricia (Debbi Morgan). As they leave Boston in a convertible and whirlwind of giddy anticipation, wind whipping through their hair like, in Patricia’s words, “a white woman’s shampoo commercial,” Nikki leans into the front seat and says, “did you know that the Black elite have been coming here since the late 1800’s?” Yes, of course they know that defining characteristic of the place they’re moving to, where Angela’s recently deceased mother spent every summer working as a maid for those very Black elite. Nikki would know that, too. But in its haste to get the Fox audience on board, or at least its white audience that wouldn’t necessarily know the history of the Bluffs, “Our Kind of People” immediately makes its actors speak like encyclopedias rather than fully formed characters. Just about every scene follows in this line’s footsteps, dropping exposition and moving the plot forward with relentless speed.
Some level of clunkiness is of course to be expected in a show’s initial episodes, especially if it’s a soap doing its best to pack in as much drama as possible. In the first episode alone, “Our Kind of People” introduces the Vaughns’ thorny history on the island, throws several parties and a fashion show, and includes a secret society induction, a sisterhood brunch, a hostile business takeover and several family secrets and quite literally throws a woman overboard. As Angela sets out to make her mark with her natural hair care line, a genuinely moving tribute to her mother’s memory, she hits obstacles in the form of old money snobbery and Leah Franklin-Dupont (Nadine Ellis), whose family and imposing father (Joe Morton) has deep roots in Bluffs history. There are the requisite romances, as seen between Leah and her newly committed husband (an underused Morris Chestnut) and Angela and local businessman Tyrique (Lance Gross). For the most part, though, it’s the Angela versus Leah rivalry that fuels the series, a fact that not a single scene will ever let you forget. DaCosta and Ellis are well up to the task of shouldering this weight, but rarely get the chance to act as anything other than dispensers of truth and/or barbed bon mots.
Network dramas always have to work hard to keep people engaged, and can therefore be more prone to burning through story like nothing else on TV, especially if they’re soaps. But it’s frustrating to watch this one not only throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, but fail to give its characters enough space to be people outside of the twists defining their lives from second to salacious second. “Our Kind of People” has plenty of intrigue inherent in its premise and location without having to make its ever-changing plots the stars of the show.
“Our Kind of People” premieres Sept. 21, at 9 p.m. on Fox.