By Aymar Jean Christian
Every week it’s becoming clearer black TV, online and onscreen, is set for a revival.
Cable networks from TV One to TV Land are ordering new shows produced by and starringblack actors, as are the Big Four. And brand new channels are waiting in the wings: a few weeksago an over-the-air network, Bounce TV, announced it was coming in the fall. BET does not want to be left behind, ramping up production on scripted series and moving faster online: the network just announced four original scripted shows for the web, up from just one last year, “Buppies.”
Behind the scenes, one producer has been working hard to make sure he’s leading the web seriespack: Al Thompson. BET just picked up two of his web dramas, “Odessa” and “Lenox Avenue.”
It’s unlikely you’ve heard of Al Thompson, but the actor and producer has created a whoppingfive separate web series, first of which, “Johnny B. Homeless,” was released just a year ago onAtom, which like BET is owned by Viacom.
“The hard work is paying off,” Thompson said in an interview. “I’m still kind of shocked.”
It’s becoming common these days for independent web series to get picked up by TV networks,either for traditional or web distribution. Networks from Showtime to Comedy Central, Centric to Nickelodeon have shown web series on TV or online.
But black web series are still in their infancy. BET’s “Buppies“, created by Julian Breece andstarring producer Tatyana Ali, remains among the most high profile and popular cases. Most series go on YouTube or a rising number of indie networks, like “Rowdy Orbit” or “KoldCast.” Even LeBron James took his animated web show straight to YouTube.
BET’s pickup of “Odessa” and “Lenox Avenue,” along with Dan Williams’ “Asylum” and “The Come Up,” is noteworthy for a few reasons. For one, it marks a shift toward web drama: “Odessa” is a sci-fi series, “Asylum” is noir thriller and “Lenox Avenue” is a coming-of-tale of three men in their mid-to late-twenties.
But what most surprised me was Thompson’s name on two projects.
“The great thing about digital is kind of eliminates the glass ceiling,” Thompson said, whileacknowledging how hard it is to get web series made. “You’re never always going to get whatyou want. Digital production is always based on who can compromise the best.”
Thompson credits his success with working with a broad production team, especially hisproducing partner, Brian Rolling. As an actor who has been working for over ten years, on suchfilms as The Royal Tenenbaums and A Walk to Remember, Thompson said he’s built up a group of talented individuals willing to work on a good projects.
“I’m a real big believer in ‘your network is your net worth,’” he said.
In each of his series, Thompson has brought on a number of talented actors, including Kenan Thompson (“Saturday Night Live”), Michael K. Williams (“The Wire”), and Dorian Missick (“Six Degrees”, “Lucky Number Slevin”), along with a number of prominent web names, including Mark Gantt and Jesse Warren.
“Odessa” follows the story of a mother and daughter migrating from small town to small town,escaping a “program” which performed experiments on them. Thompson describes it as “Enemy of the State” meets “The X-Files.” The series will last for ten episodes, each about six minutes.
“Lenox Avenue” is set in Harlem and follows three men as they enter adulthood. Thompson grew up in Harlem at the Riverton on 135th street and created the series to showcase neighborhood andpositive images of adult black men.
“The closest thing Harlem has ever had to a TV show is New York Undercover,” Thompson said.“So many great people come out of Harlem…somebody has to keep it going.”
Self-financing his projects mostly with funds from his Hollywood and commercial work, Thompson has two more completed series in the pipeline, both comedies. One, “Tilt-A-World”, is set in Maryland as a young man comes back home after his father’s death and must take over the family business, a carnival. The other, “Baby Daddy Memoirs,” is the story of a man with over two dozen “baby mothers.”
“For me it’s almost my own little play room of movies,” he said, “where I get to work with friends and talented people who eat, breathe and sleep independent filmmaking.”