Phil Augusta Jackson is hungry for two things: good wine and classic network sitcom fare.
“In Season 1, we were setting the table. In Season 2, we get to really eat,” Jackson says about his NBC series, a hangout comedy that regularly unites a Black friend group in east Los Angeles at a wine bar called Cru.
“We spent a lot of time and care making sure that each episode covered a dynamic that is relatable in the Black community,” Jackson continues when describing his process as creator and showrunner during the show’s first installment. “But I think the overall theme for this season is Black joy. Being able to live in your Blackness and not necessarily having to speak to it within every episode. Those dynamics are going to come through on their own.”
It’s a familiar rhythm: Spend your first installation establishing a mood and your second outing will have more room for hijinks. For example, Season 1 emphasizes Noah’s (Echo Kellum) hopeless romanticism, then fully commits to it with a cliffhanger for Season 2 to address: Noah makes the practical decision to break it off with his new girlfriend, Simone (Ashleigh Morghan), whose immigration status requires her to move back to Canada … but then Simone proposes that they fight that rule by getting married.
“Spoilers away! I become a priest,” Kellum jokes. “No, we’re going to be exploring Noah’s relationship with relationships. We’ll get an answer to that cliffhanger and get into these dating streets to breathe a lot of comedy and some heartfelt moments, too.”
The shows most commonly referenced by Jackson and the “Grand Crew” cast include “Seinfeld” — Kellum notes that Jackson thinks of “Grand Crew” as “Wine-feld” — as well as “Living Single,” “Cheers” and “A Different World.” That is, ’80s and ’90s sitcoms that largely contained themselves to a main setting and explored the dynamics of a single group. A strength of “Grand Crew” that many of its predecessors didn’t achieve, however, is the one-one-relationships between every combination of its main cast. Along with Kellum, that includes Nicole Byer as Noah’s sister, Nicky; Carl Tart as Nicky and Noah’s childhood friend, Sherm; Aaron Jennings as Noah’s college friend and Sherm’s current roommate, Anthony; Justin Cunningham as Noah’s best friend, Wyatt; and Grasie Mercedes as Fay, who is new to L.A. and quickly becomes close to Nicky and the rest of the group.
Whereas many hangout comedies neglect a few relationships to give more screen time to other ones — think “The Mermaid Theory,” the Season 6 episode of “How I Met Your Mother where Marshall and Robin realize they’ve never spoken to each other outside of the group — these Angelenos take time to cultivate individual friendships in a way that feels true to life in a big city, where coordinating full-group hangs often feels impossible.
“There’s a little bit of math involved at a bare bones level,” Jackson says. “The relationship between Nicky and Noah as brother and sister is something we want to use to our advantage. Having that familiar dynamic is something we feel is very unique for this particular friend group. Beyond that, it’s really just pairing people up and figuring out what fun stories we can put together given the archetypes that that we have. You can name any combination, and I can tell you why I think it’d be really fun to see them together. We just try and make sure that there’s a lot of different options so it doesn’t feel redundant.”
Having another home base helps facilitate some of those outside-the-bar relationships. For example, Wyatt often serves as the mature advice-giver, being the only member of the group with a spouse and a house, and he and his wife Kristen (Maya Lynne Robinson) often host some of the show’s more intimate moments.
The set of Wyatt’s house is littered with intensely specific details — a poem by Rumi pegged to a bulletin board, a crumpled receipt showing a 35% tip paid on an Amex card. For the actors, these details help the show feel grounding and lived-in.
“Personally, I don’t own a house. Wyatt has a stability about his life, and I’m not necessarily the opposite of that, but I do relish that I get to play with a sense of security that I then get to share with the other characters,” says Cunningham. “It’s really fun for me to feel like this is my place where I can really, truly be myself. This character allows me to explore parts of myself that I don’t normally get to.”
Tart concurred about the effects of “Grand Crew’s” different craft elements, pointing towards costume design as well: “It influences my process in that I’m a bad actor and I need my work to be close to me,” he laughs. “The thing I’m most proud of that I get to represent the Clippers on the show; I wear Clippers hats and sweatshirts. The Clippers aren’t always the prettiest girls at the dance!”
And even though the lineup of classy merlots and lambruscos consumed on “Grand Crew” are really just a combination of different juices and dyed waters, the cast’s tipsiness has some semblance of authenticity.
“There were times where, if we were doing a scene where we had to pretend to be drunk, and we were in that scene for so long, I got in a loop and kept repeating my lines,” says Byer, eyes wide with concern. “Phil’s like, ‘Are you okay?’ I’m feeling drunk! I’d see sunlight and be like, ‘What’s going on?’”
And off-camera, it is real.
“My favorite memories will always just be going to the bar that we go to,” Jennings says, “and I won’t name it because I don’t want folks to go there, but—”
“It’s been named so many times,” Mercedes laughs.
“It has? Okay, it’s Covell,” Jennings admits with a frown, before grinning again. “It’s life imitating art and art imitating life.”