As I pressed play on the first episode of “Run the World,” I wasn’t intending to mainline the entire eight-episode season in one greedy gulp. But as a blessedly rare warm New York City breeze floated through my open window, Leigh Davenport’s lush new series about four friends having a vivid, game-changing Harlem summer proved too good and fitting to resist.
“Run the World,” premiering May 16 on Starz, is immediately self-aware of its place in the TV canon, particularly as a witty dramedy about four thirty-something women falling in and out of love and lust in New York. In the pilot, frustrated writer Ella (Andrea Bordeaux) fondly refers to her on and off boyfriend Anderson (Nick Sagar) as her “Big,” as in the infamous “Mr. Big” who drove Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw so wild throughout “Sex and the City.” But on “Run the World,” Ella’s declaration inspires nothing but eye-rolls from her pragmatic friend Sondi (Corbin Reid). “Big was tall, rich, and had a driver,” Sondi replies. “If you’re going to perpetually humiliate yourself for a man, he better be tall, rich, and have a driver. There’s a very clear, well-established pop culture roadmap for this!”
This is the show’s last overt “Sex and the City” reference, which is probably for the best. (The welcome exception to this rule is that “Sex and the City” stylist Patricia Field acts as a consultant with her erstwhile colleague Tracy L. Cox running point on the series’ enviable costumes overall.) “Run the World” has its own distinct mood and vibe that’s nothing like its predecessor, not least because it takes place in a predominantly Black neighborhood that Carrie and her friends would’ve never ventured into outside of a dare, Manhattan or no.
Rounding out the show’s central foursome beyond Ella and Sondi are vivacious advertising exec Renee (Bresha Webb), constantly on the brink of divorcing her husband Jason (Jay Walker) and buttoned-up Whitney (Amber Stevens West), currently on the edge of a full-blown panic attack over the ballooning responsibility of her impending marriage to her longtime boyfriend, Nigerian doctor Ola (Tosin Morohunfola).
Each woman has her own story, motivations and particular strengths, and paired with their corresponding actors, each character quickly becomes distinct. The differences and overlapping similarities between them all become more defined several episodes deep into the season, when an ambitious sequence shows each of them in therapy with the same no-bullshit therapist they all accidentally share. That the therapist is played by none other than Rosie O’Donnell is not just a perfectly unexpected bit of casting, but a notable deviation from TV’s more typical casting of a Black woman therapist for a hapless white protagonist.
Sometimes, the friends’ casual cocktail hours turn into freewheeling dissertations on anything from texting etiquette, to losing themselves in a relationship, to the surprising upsides of porn that only features white performers. (I’ll let them explain it.) But these chats are far less didactic in nature than they might’ve been on “Dear White People,” the Netflix series that “Run the World” showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser spent several seasons steering. Instead, the dialogue of “Run the World” feels far more casual, lived-in and real. By the end of the first season, I was so taken in by the easy chemistry between Bordeaux, Reid, Webb and Stevens West that I almost forgot I was watching actors, which is all you can ask for from a show about the true intimacy of friendship.
Maybe the most impressive attribute of “Run the World,” however, is the sheer look of it. Directed by Millicent Shelton, Justin Tipping, Jenée LaMarque and Nastaran Dibai, the series portrays Harlem with such a rich eye for the neighborhood’s singular detail that it highlights just how egregious it is that television has relatively ignored it despite setting so many shows in the surrounding city. Production designer Diane Lederman gives each apartment its own personality and purpose. When Renee scopes out a new one on a gentrified block, its generic blankness is purposefully, oppressively claustrophobic.
Pressed to find an area where “Run the World” might fall short, maybe it’s the fact that the show feels like it could take place at any point within the last five to 10 years rather than squarely in the present. But even that isn’t necessarily a failure to be relevant. In telling stories about relationship dynamics and women staring down their thirties with a thrill of apprehension and determination, “Run the World” is telling timeless stories with its own vibrant spin.
“Run the World” premieres May 16 on Starz.