Jamal Woodson (Ronreaco Lee), left, Tasha Woodson (Joyful Drake), Stacey… (BET Networks )
BET's new series "Let's Stay Together" fits squarely within the formula of TV romantic comedies in many ways. The cast is young and attractive, every problem can be fixed in about 22 minutes, and there is lots and lots of talk about sex.
But "Let's Stay Together" is instantly distinctive from the cookie-cutter rom-com. For one thing, the cast is all black, a rarity on prime-time TV.
Half of a comedy block to be launched on Jan. 11, "Let's Stay Together" is a positive response to what observers of BET have been demanding for years: original scripted programming for its primarily African American audience.
"Let's Stay Together" is a pivotal step in that direction, declare BET executives, and a key milestone in the 30-year history of BET. They have recruited star power to make the point even stronger: The show's executive producer is Queen Latifah, who helped develop the series under the banner of her Flavor Unit Production company.
"This show represents the new image of BET, and we are so very proud to be a part of it," said Latifah. "It's something that is needed, particularly for African American viewers."
Added Loretha Jones, BET's entertainment chief: "I'm so excited about our foray into scripted television. There have not been a lot of opportunities for African Americans to see themselves on TV in scripted shows. If we want to portray the full breadth of the African American experience, it's easier to do in the scripted world rather than reality television."
The show, which was created by Jacque Edmonds Cofer ("Living Single"), revolves around five young and aspiring African Americans dealing with the complexities of relationships and sex. The cast includes Joyful Drake ("Beauty Shop"), RonReaco Lee ("Moesha") and Erica Hubbard ( "Lincoln Heights").
"Let's Stay Together" will be paired with the revival of "The Game," a series about the women involved with members of a professional football team. "The Game" was canceled last year by the CW because of low ratings, but repeats have been hugely popular on BET. The new episodes will feature the original cast, including Tia Mowry Hardrict and Wendy Raquel Robinson.
BET is counting on the new comedy block to be more successful than the network's disastrous first attempt in 2008 when then-entertainment president Reginald Hudlin developed "Somebodies," about a group of post-collegiate friends in Athens, Ga. The series was risky and ambitious; it was written by actor-comedian Hadjii and was a single-camera show without a laugh track.
Though many critics praised the series and BET for finally venturing into scripted territory, "Somebodies" debuted to dismal ratings. The show was the final chapter in Hudlin's often-rocky, three-year stint at the network; he was let go a few days after the series' launch.
Jones hopes to avoid costly failures; both shows will tape at BET's Atlanta studios. "We've worked out ways to be more efficient in our production," she said. "We're very careful in our approach."
BET already has other scripted programs in development: Jones is preparing to greenlight a new family comedy starring Tracee Ellis Ross ( "Girlfriends") and Malcolm Jamal-Warner ( "The Cosby Show"), and is developing a police drama with writer-director Reggie Rock Bythewood (" New York Undercover").
Said Jones, "We're very thrilled about our new future."