In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: the brand new OWN drama David Makes Man, whose first season airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern. You can watch the show’s first episode for free on OWN’s website.
There are surprisingly few great TV shows about boys going through adolescence. For every Wonder Years or Friday Night Lights, there are seemingly a dozen good-to-great shows about teenage girls transitioning from girlhood to womanhood and rolling their eyes at their moms.
Don’t get me wrong — I love stories about teen girls and their struggles. But the emotional turmoil that greets teen boys, who are often made to feel intense shame for their roiling feelings by a society that too often asks men to express no emotion, is something TV could be uniquely well-suited to handle.
And even beyond the “where are good shows about teen boys?” question lies the “where are good shows about teen boys of color?” question, which is even harder to answer. Outside of certain storylines on prestige dramas like The Wire and (again) Friday Night Lights, the domain of teen TV is almost exclusively white. In the rare case where a series does prominently feature a teen boy of color — as on FX’s Snowfall — his storyline often becomes wrapped up in what happens after he’s inevitably drawn into a life of crime, rather than the complex emotions that accompany growing up.
But now there’s a show that might change all that. Like all kids navigating adolescence, OWN’s new series David Makes Man has growing pains. But at its best, it’s a beautiful coming-of-age story about a black teenager, the people who want him to live up to all his promise, and a country that doesn’t seem to have room for him — no matter how great he might become.
David Makes Man already has a voice and style all its own
Tarell Alvin McCraney, the creator of David Makes Man, is having a pretty great 2019 — especially once you realize that “pretty great 2019” is in the context of the fact that he won an Oscar for co-writing the Best Picture-winning Moonlight in 2017. (He also wrote the play Moonlight was based on.)
But winning awards isn’t everything! Suddenly, McCraney’s writing is everywhere. It’s on Broadway, in the Tony-nominated play Choir Boy. It’s on Netflix, in the acclaimed Steven Soderbergh film High Flying Bird. And now it’s driving a TV show, via David Makes Man. The series returns to the poverty-stricken, predominantly black Florida neighborhoods that McCraney visited in Moonlight, but also slows down and expands that movie’s middle section, which focused on a sensitive black teenager grappling with his sexuality.
We’re once again following the life of a sensitive black teenage boy in David Makes Man, and you won’t be shocked to learn his name is David (played by newcomer Akili McDowell). But where Moonlight drilled down so specifically into a handful of days that changed its protagonist Chiron’s life, David Makes Man has room to sprawl and to build out the neighborhood that David lives in, and introduce us to the people who live there.
In particular, I love the series’ focus on David’s life at school. Especially notable is his friendship with a boy in his class named Seren (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre), as part of a storyline that elegantly dips into topics like colorism and violence and a legacy of trauma, without becoming too heavy-handed. Seren’s family is slightly better off than David’s, so he has a slightly more realistic path to follow toward stability and success. But everybody at the school seems to see how much David might accomplish if he can navigate the minefield of black male adolescence in America and come out the other side.
The biggest name in the show’s cast of mostly young newcomers is Phylicia Rashad, who plays David’s loving but concerned teacher, Dr. Woods-Trap. Her character is someone you’ve met a million times before, but McCraney and Rashad quickly capture this woman’s wary world-weariness — the way that she desperately wants something better for David and his classmates but knows they live in a country that will do terrible things to them.
And I love how even in the midst of such a familiar story, McCraney avoids the cheapest clichés, as when Dr. Woods-Trap asks who in her class has actually done the reading, and every kid raises their hand. (Of course they would — David attends a school for academically promising underprivileged kids.)
David Makes Man stumbles a bit in the episodes that follow its mesmerizing first hour. (I’ve seen five so far.) But it’s worth watching for what it does get right, and for its visual style. It creates a world where teen boys’ innermost thoughts are scribbled on the wall, like passing notes, and where David can seem trapped between moments of time, in a dark place where he has the luxury to pause and breathe and contemplate for just a moment.
A show doesn’t have to be perfect if it’s offering something no other show can, and I can think of no other show that’s quite like this one.
David Makes Man airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on OWN. Watch previous episodes at the network’s website.