AS IT WINDS UP ITS FIRST SEASON ON Tuesday (May 21 at 8 p.m. ET), UPN’s Moesha has developed into a show that’s as fresh and unusual as its name. In 17-year-old actress-singer Brandy, who combines little-girl sweetness and teenage ebullience in playing high school student Moesha Mitchell, it has an enchanting young star. The show also takes a lighthearted approach to black style and has a distinctive sound both in its catchy theme music and in its playful teenspeak. (When Moesha snipes cattily at a girlfriend, her little brother mutters, “Braids too tight!”) I’m not surprised that rapper Busta Rhymes calls Moesha “the phattest show out there” and that MTV recently aired a two-hour special with the cast.
But Moesha’s audience ought to be much wider than the MTV crowd (the ratings are high for UPN, low overall). The show gives an affectionate but honest view of African-American life in the ’90s. The Mitchell family is loving, but they’re not as perfect as the Waltons or the Huxtables. Dad (William Allen Young) tries to be protective, but he can also can be insensitive and narrow-minded. “Watch out, Father Knows Less,” stepmother Dee (Sheryl Lee Ralph) scolds him. Moesha’s bright and independent but can overdo it. “Would Madame Curie have waved pompoms?” she grandly tells a cheerleader.
An aspiring writer, Moesha most admires the Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who celebrated 1930s black culture and pioneered the serious literary use of black speech. “I’ve always loved Hurston,” says Sara V. Finney, co-creator of the show with Vida Spears. “Moesha, like the heroine, Janie, in Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, does things her own way.” Spears sees the show’s setting, the black community of Leimert Park in southern Los Angeles, as a mixture of Hurston’s tight-knit Florida hometown and the Harlem literary world of her adult life. In an episode next season, Moesha will meet a neighbor who lived through the Harlem Renaissance and even knew Hurston.
But the show doesn’t limit itself to a single culture or neighborhood. “Moesha is adventurous,” says Finney. “She wants to discover the world.” She also calls herself a “new millennium woman”—and now should be her moment. Check her out.