Let’s Stay Together, the first sitcom produced by BET, is pretty much exactly what you might expect from a BET sitcom, nothing more and nothing less. Creator, executive producer and show writer Jacque Edmonds Cofer made tonight’s episode with a house style that harkens back to some of her previous sitcoms, most famously Moesha. Both shows treat sexual politics in a similarly prominent and aspiringly adult way, using dueling couples to provide a spectrum of potentially level-headed role models for a viewing public that ostensibly wants to go beyond The Cosby Show sitcom model of the domestic black experience. As with Moesha, this works insofar as a sitcom can disseminate that kind of tension in a mostly neutered environment. Characters throw tantrums and express their feelings constantly, but those feelings rarely feel revelatory. More to the point: Let’s Stay Together’s couples rarely do anything except reinforce a new status quo where conflicts of both a libidinal and a parental nature are resolved with promises of better behavior. It’s pretty bland stuff, but within its mode, it’s a perfectly watchable show with a notable twist on typical sitcom formulas here and there.
The two main couples in Let’s Stay Together are Tasha and Jamal, who are married and have two toddler-aged children, and Charles and Stacy, who are engaged. The issues du jour in tonight's episode, both revolve around the couples’ inability to successfully talk about whatever’s really bugging them about their immediate petty squabbles. Bear with me while I sound like Dr. Ruth for a moment: Stacy and Charles, just like Moesha and Hakeem (though this only happens in the later seasons of Moesha), are a sexually active young couple, so planning his birthday only winds up revealing the lack of satisfying bedroom action for the couple. Tasha and Jamal, on the other hand, fight to decide whether or not their infant son should dress up in girl’s clothing for a photo shoot that would get Tasha the washer-dryer set she’s been dreaming of, in spite of Jamal’s staunch reservations about dressing up his son in the wrong gender-coded clothing.
What separates Let’s Stay Together from most contemporary sitcoms is the lengths Cofer goes to make her characters’ problems feel semi-realistic without sacrificing their potential for humor. She affords her protagonists every opportunity to explain their actions, so as to give them the appearance of depth. Take Tasha and Jamal’s problem for example. Tasha explains to Stacy and Charles’ sassy younger sister Kita that she knows she’s using her kids for material things, but after a point, she deserves a little recognition: “I’m tired of being broke and changing diapers.” Furthermore, she complains about how Jamal isn’t doing everything he can to support the family (“He wanted to work as legal aide to help benefit his people. I wish President Obama wasn’t so inspiring.”).
But then there’s the flip side of that argument, namely the way that Cofer makes Jamal’s complaints about his son’s potential gender confusion change from a losing argument to a more levelheaded and expressly sympathetic one. First, Jamal argues that the photos would haunt his son forever, floating around the Internet and popping up as the first thing any recruiters for the NFL or the Senate would see when they looked him up. This is played up for yuks, but later, the real issue is disclosed in a patently sitcom-y way. By episode’s end, after taking some genuinely bizarre but at least superficially surprising desperate measures, Jamal explains to Tasha that the whole “dressing a boy as a girl” thing doesn’t really bother him, but the fact that she went ahead and made a decision as important as signing his son up to wear girl’s clothing for a photo shoot without his consent really rankles his nerves. This doesn’t smack at all of back-pedaling on Jamal’s part because Cofer is determined that we take this emasculated male character—the only way Jamal can act in the show is by taking his kids and absconding with them, twin stroller and all—and his problems seriously.
The execution of this central idea of maintaining a neutral stance toward gender warfare is naturally more interesting in theory than in practice. Being on everyone’s team all the time is exhausting and probably one of the more significant dampers on the show’s sense of humor. None of the characters’ toes are ever stepped on too forcefully, which is a major buzzkill for a sitcom.
To be fair, Cofer also doesn’t pussyfoot around Jamal and Jamal’s issue completely. She does allow Stacy, in a fit of anger, to storm out of Jamal’s apartment after warning him, “Don't ever mess with my sister or her kids ever again.” No character rebukes her for that anger, though Charles makes a glancing joke to Jamal that he should hide his golf clubs. And no doors are slammed as Stacy makes her exit (in fact, we get to see Jamal close and lock his own door, as if to show that he is now in control of the situation). But the fact remains that Stacy said “her kids” and nobody tried to correct her. The sting of that comment should linger with the viewer, though only for a moment or two.
Stacy and Charles only provide a mildly interesting kind of balancing dynamic to Jamal and Tasha’s married life. Charles’ lack of imagination for how Stacy can please him leads him to rattle off dated birthday party ideas he had from when he was a kid, including a cute one about how he wants his wife to memorize the dance moves from Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” music video and perform them for him after she serves him breakfast in bed. She, in turn, has no idea what to do for him and so tries to learn how to give him a lap dance. In the end, they’re both exhausted and wind up telling each other so. Cofer’s attempt to reassure the audience that even young couples can’t keep up their voracious appetite for each other is quaint but not nearly as potentially knotty or interesting as Stacy and Charles’s over-plot, which makes the ballast it provides Jamal and Tasha’s story arc negligible at best.