Clearly Atlanta’s adopted son Tyler Perry is the most polarizing African American entertainment figure of our time. When it was announced last fall that Perry would team with the almighty Oprah to produce original series for her network OWN, there were many raised eyebrows.
And this week Perry unveiled his Oprahlicious collaborations to a storm of criticism coupled with defense from his fans.
The Haves and the Have Nots (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) is a throwback to nighttime soaps like Dynasty—with a racial twist. It centers on the white and very rich Cryer family with a main plotline involving the African American daughter of one of their maids. The comedy Tyler Perry’s Love Thy Neighbor (Wednesdays at 9 p.m.) features female lead Patrice Loveli as Madea-esque Mamma Hattie.
Needless to say, Perry's audience has backed him up, making The Haves and the Have Nots “OWN’S HIGHEST RATED SERIES DEBUT IN NETWORK HISTORY WITH 1.77 MILLION TOTAL VIEWERS,” according a jubilant press release. In fact, the network notes that more than 1.8 million total viewers tuned in for the second episode, which immediately followed the premiere.
Perry himself was hyperactive on Twitter, promoting the show to his 2.5 million-plus followers. As if predicting the next day’s many naysayers, one of Perry’s last tweets on the night of the show’s premiere was, “Now tomorrow make sure you talk about how good this show was at your job, ok? #HavesAndHaveNots”
And the criticism came full blast. Critics, of course, detested The Haves and the Have Nots. Variety’s TV columnist Brian Lowry even predicted that the scripted series was beginning of the demise of Empire Oprah, writing:
Almost exactly two years ago I wondered whether leaving her syndicated
show would “herald a bright future, or her diminution as a cultural
and media force? Counting Oprah out would be silly, but given a
choice, here’s a qualified bet on the latter.” Whatever OWN’s future,
if its first scripted drama from Perry is in any way indicative of the
network’s direction or becomes one of its staples, historians will be
able to trace the time that trail flamed out to right around May 28.
But Lowry’s words are relatively mild in comparison to what Brittney Cooper, assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, had to say on her site, Crunk Feminist Collective. In a piece titled “Tyler Perry Hates Black Women: 5 Thoughts on The Haves and Have Nots,” she holds nothing back and even proclaims that “Tyler Perry is dangerous” because “he has made Black women mistake hate for love” and uses as evidence the “rape scene” from the show—in which Candace, played by rising star Tika Sumpter, turns the sexual tables on Judge Jim Cryer, her friend Amanda’s father.
As a contrast, Dr. Cooper references showrunner Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal starring Kerry Washington, and argues fervently that Perry will never be in Rhimes's “stratosphere.” For Cooper, Perry is a “cultural batterer” similar to a “wife batterer.” In fact, that was her lead complaint as she notes, in reference to the maid Hanna, her daughter/seductress Candace and Cryer family friend, the wealthy and black Veronica Harrington.
And, adds Cooper, “The fact that Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire, along with their remixes (Bad) Baby Mama, Golddigger, Freak and Hood B** showed up in under 15 mins is surely a new world record.”
When a reader asks, “How is this show any different from the soap operas and other shows like Dynasty?,” Cooper responds “Whenever there are trashy white tv shows on… HOW MANY GOOD AND QUALITY WHITE TV SHOWS ARE THERE TO COUNTERBALANCE THAT?” and adds “BLACK SHOWS DO NOT HAVE THE SAME OPTION ON TV!!!”
Cooper does point out that Oprah Winfrey, for her part, is doing what many networks (FOX, WB) have done before; turned to more African American-focused entertainment to create larger ratings for OWN, whose struggles have been well-documented. Serving such an underserved demographic is almost always a ratings winner as Winfrey and OWN are proving. And, with Perry, they seem to be getting what they ask for.
Unfortunately, for Perry, whether he intends it or not, he cannot escape virulent criticism regardless of how hard he tries or how much money he makes or generates. For now, he can only please some of the people because there are others he will clearly never please. In fact, that might be a show in itself.