Twins separated at birth, adopted, and miraculously reunited in their teenage years – it’s not exactly a groundbreaking plot device. But with an all-black cast, Nineties US teen sitcom Sister, Sister felt like it was doing something a little different. The appeal of the family show, which debuted in my birth year of 1994 and starred real-life twins Tia and Tamera Mowry, also seems to have stood the test of time. Last week it started streaming on Netflix, more than 20 years after the finale of its last series.
As I’ve torn through Sister, Sister, I’ve been reflecting on how the Mowry twins’ world feels far more subversive than I ever remembered – most notably, the creators’ choice to make almost every member of the cast black. By this, I don’t mean just the starring family: in Tia and Tamera’s day-to-day life, their friends are black, their love interests are black, their teachers, acquaintances and bus drivers are black. In a white-dominated industry, this must have been highly intentional on the part of the creators, yet the approach wasn’t actually all that unique to Sister, Sister at the time. In fact, my childhood TV diet included an abundance of majority-black American sitcoms, such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Kenan and Kel, and Moesha, because I grew up at the tail end of what you might now call the “black sitcom boom”.
The boom’s roots predate my existence. It was sparked by the huge success of The Cosby Show in 1984, which demonstrated that black-led sitcoms could be a highly profitable endeavour, sparking dozens of shows with a similar set-up. Executives had discovered a gap in the market when it came to black audiences and so suddenly network television became very black, very quickly. The greatest of all beneficiaries of this shift was modern-day broadcasting giant Fox, which was founded in 1986 by Rupert Murdoch and, as a new network, needed to demonstrate its commercial viability. By the mid-Nineties, Fox specifically was churning out a number of black-led sitcoms, including Living Single, Martin, Roc, South Central and The Sinbad Show. There was a show, or so it seemed, almost every night of the week.
On this side of the Atlantic, the trend was similar – although, with a smaller black community, and a less powerful television industry, it took place on more of a microcosmic scale. While shows like Sister, Sister and The Fresh Prince were picked up both by network and cable stations like the BBC and Nickelodeon, Channel 4 also championed Desmond’s (1989-1994), a sitcom about a black British Guyanese family set in a Peckham barber’s and, in 1995, commissioned the spin-off Porkpie. Around the same time in the mid-Nineties, Lenny Henry’s kitchen sitcom Chef! graced our screens, and soon the UK even got the subscription channel Trouble TV, which dedicated much of its airtime to black-led sitcoms.
There is very little written on the impact of the black sitcom boom in the UK, but we know that back in America, the result was that audiences started to split. Historical Nielsen TV ratings show that in the 1980s, black Americans were largely watching the same shows as their white counterparts, but by the mid-Nineties, while Friends and Seinfeld were both in the top five highest-rated shows for white viewers, they didn’t even crack the top 70 shows for black people. This emerging divide was summed up by one prime-time remark in 1995, when Oprah Winfrey told a bright-eyed Friends cast: “I’d like y’all to get a black friend; maybe I could stop by.”
With this in mind, Sister, Sister’s all-black universe starts to make a bit more sense. Much like its peers, it wasn’t really intended to be a “diverse” show. Instead, it was a reality entirely constructed for black audiences, certainly not the same one as Ross and Rachel’s.
To some, this might sound like a sort of TV-style segregation. In actuality, it was a response to an overwhelmingly white television climate. Popular as they were, majority-white sitcoms didn’t reflect the lives of black communities. While non-traditional family sitcom Full House’s topical “very special episodes” took on issues like horseback riding and finding the true meaning of Christmas, The Fresh Prince’s specials saw protagonist Will arrested by racist police, or in one episode, getting shot. These were the issues that concerned black teenagers, and all-white writers’ rooms weren’t up to the task of taking them on.
So what happened to the golden age of black sitcoms? The rest of the story is unfortunately all too familiar. The seeds of decline were actually sown as early as 1994, when Fox axed a slew of black sitcoms in one fell swoop. The network had successfully catapulted itself to prominence by capitalising on black audiences, and now executives wanted to use their new-found credibility to target white viewers, specifically men aged 18-34, who were seen to have more buying power. Ratings were good for a smaller network, but Fox wanted to rival the “big three” (ABC, CBS and NBC). So in marketing terms, the network “traded up” to this demographic by introducing more reality programming, including shows like World’s Wildest Police Videos, which ironically profited from the spectacle of racist policing.
Throughout the late Nineties, other fledgling American networks, like The WB and UPN, employed the same blueprint as Fox, using black sitcoms to launch, then attempting to “trade up” – and by the turn of the millennium, most of the big hitters – including The Fresh Prince, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Sister, Sister and Family Matters – had wrapped. A couple of shows, like black comedy veteran Damon Wayans’s My Wife and Kids, stretched into the Noughties on Trouble, and in the UK, Fresh Prince reruns were broadcast on more than 10 channels. But it largely seemed that networks had got all the profits they needed out of black audiences – and, according to Nielsen ratings, viewing preferences converged again across ethnic groups. The following decade or so was a barren landscape when it came to black-led shows on network television and, as the Noughties went on, black characters became sidekicks, best friends and sassy colleagues in shows that primarily revolved around the lives of white people, such as Winston in New Girl and Helen in Drake and Josh.
Of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Dr Robin Coleman, an academic who writes on black pop culture, theorises that the black television trend comes in cycles – about a decade of boom, followed by about a decade of bust. Accordingly, black comedy is thriving again, despite the studio audience sitcom format being pretty much dead. Its renaissance comes in response both to widespread campaigning on media diversity, and the somewhat democratising effects of the internet – take Issa Rae’s Insecure, which was born from Rae’s popular web series Awkward Black Girl, or Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which debuted the same year.
Still, I think there was something quite unique offered by those all-black family shows that peaked in the Nineties; as a black kid, you could tune in and see other black kids growing up in a home that looked a bit like yours. The remnants of that after-school-special-style legacy do still live on in Kenya Barris’s family sitcom Black-ish and its various spin-offs, which have boomed in part because of the streaming age. These shows draw on the tradition of those cheesy Nineties family sitcoms – which, inoffensive as they may seem – were transformed into a vehicle for surviving a hostile racial climate. Sister, Sister, in particular, took on issues like black history, natural hair, and even the importance of unions, yet I still found its messages comprehensible at only six or seven years old. That kind of programming wouldn’t return for at least another decade, despite the fact that the Noughties were seen as a jump into the future.
Dr Coleman suggests that black comedies are always guaranteed to come back into the mainstream in some shape or form. But what the cycle also reveals is that the demand for black stories on screen never truly goes away. If we want to see our favourite black comedies survive throughout the next decade and beyond, networks must see black communities as more than an audience to exploit for gain – and instead as one to serve.