HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show is exactly what its title tells you it is: a sketch comedy show centring and spotlighting a group of black, women comedians as they and a ridiculously impressive cast of guest stars act a damned fool in a variety of wild scenes. But in between the jokes and impressions, A Black Lady Sketch Show also takes the time to tell a story about post-apocalyptic survival that’s as ridiculous as it is strangely resonant given how our world often feels as if it’s on the brink of collapse.
A Black Lady Sketch Show’s first episodes introduces you to its core cast of comics — Robin Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson and Luke Cage’s Gabrielle Dennis — along with a handful of the recurring characters they play throughout the season.
Professional “hertep” Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman (Thede) and Trinity (Black), the spy whose astonishingly-everyday face makes it impossible for people to notice her, are introduced as one-off characters, but as the season progresses, you’re given glimpses of their lives beyond those initial scenes in a way that gives you the sense that all of A Black Lady Sketch Show’s sketches exist within a single, contained (heightened) reality.
A Black Lady Sketch Show hints at that idea here and there with sight gags and references that subtly connect sketches to one another, but it’s in the series of interstitials that tie each episode together that you really see the larger story that’s being told.
In the first episode, one of the first things you actually see after A Black Lady Sketch Show’s puppet-filled opening credits sequence is a scene in which Quinta, Ashley, Gabrielle, and Robin are all just chilling out in a luxurious house 11 hours and 10 minutes after what’s only described as “The Event.”
Ominous as “the Event” sounds, none of the women seem particularly concerned about it and their lack of concern makes it easy to forget that the Event is really something to pay attention to. At first, the interstitials seems like they’re just moments to clear the air, switch up the pace, and give viewers a chance to see the comedians just playing with one another and cracking the kinds of jokes friends do when they get drunk and high together.
Everyone obviously gets along, but the interstitials are all shot through with a palpable unease that everybody makes a point of trying to distract themselves from and it’s not until the episode’s final moments that it becomes clear what has them all on edge.
When Nicole accidentally breaks Quinta’s phone while going through it, Robin and Ashley have to keep the two apart to stop them from fighting and Robin tries to get Quinta to calm down, because hey, a broken phone isn’t the end of the world. The scene stops as everyone gasps and looks at Robin in mild offence and she totally understands why because what she’s just said has hit too close to home.
A Black Lady Sketch Show jumps into the past in subsequent episodes and the interstitials begin taking place closer and closer to the beginning of the Event, and gradually the series gives you a fuller picture of what went down. It’s never explained how, exactly, but not long after the cataclysm’s beginning, everyone was able to make it to Robin’s house which is somehow bomb and radiation-proof.
The women have wine, and snacks and hair care products, but it all serves to highlight the grimness of the reality they’re living through. No matter what creature comforts they’ve all managed to bring with them into the house, none of it really matters because the world’s come to an end, and all they’ve really got left is one another.
In an interesting way, the apocalypse turns A Black Lady Sketch Show into something of a metastory because of the way that it makes you reconsider what the interstitials’ relationships to the sketches themselves are. As unconnected and unmoored from reality as the sketches tend to be, it would make a certain kind of sense if they were actually elaborate stories friends told one another as they huddled together in the first hours of a nuclear war.
When you look at it that way, the sheer breadth of A Black Lady Sketch Show’s first season becomes terrifying in a way because the implication is that the four women have spent the past few hours doing everything they can to ignore the reality of the rest of their apocalyptic lives.
Jokes about a 227 reboot are fun and all, but they can only do but so much to distract you from the fact that you’ve only got but so many rations to last you for the foreseeable future and once the food’s gone it’s just gone.
One of the things that stands out most about using a story about four black women living through the apocalypse as a framing device for a comedy series is that you just straight up don’t see stories about four black women living through comedic apocalypses on television or in film (despite the fact that that’s an established comedic sub-genre.)
But A Black Lady Sketch Show isn’t particularly interested in simply being the first production of its kind, luxuriating in its distinction, and calling it a day. By the first season’s finale, the apocalypse plot goes in an interesting, though not wholly surprising direction that opens up a whole new wealth of possibilities for the future which is perfect because season 2’s already on the way.