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'Love Is __' review: OWN's new feel-good show could use a little more edge

Michele Weaver and Will Catlett heat up in

Michele Weaver and Will Catlett heat up in OWN's "Love Is __." Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment/Michael Desmond

THE SERIES "Love Is __"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on OWN

WHAT IT'S ABOUT It's Hollywood circa 1997, and Nuri (Michele Weaver, “Switched at Birth”) is a TV writer by way of Kansas who lands a job on a mediocre sitcom. Her best friend and co-writer, Angela (Idara Victor), is also appalled at the quality. The showrunner is a sexist bully, but a paycheck's a paycheck, and this happens to be a good one. Nuri even buys a house, but not before meeting Yasir (Will Catlett), a devout Muslim and would-be director who becomes homeless after his former girlfriend kicks him out of the apartment that she's been paying for. Yasir can't get his car to start, which he then pushes in front of Nuri's house.

This 10-parter is a portrait of the real-life romance of TV showrunner Mara Brock Akil and producer-director Salim Akil. (They married in 1999.) It's structured as a reminiscence by a long-happily married couple (Wendy Davis, Clarke Peters) on their 30th anniversary.

MY SAY Love is patient? Love is kind? Love is never having to say you're sorry?  Love is — well, what is love? Take your pick, but this new series' title proposes a third option, which is no choice at all. "Love is not something you can control," says pragmatic Nuri, and so why define that which is uncontrollable?

Open-ended — and especially openhearted — "Love Is __" methodically fills in the blank via the oldest story ever told. Guy meets girl. They fall in love. Complications ensue. Complications are resolved. What's unique to this love story is the setting — ’90s black Hollywood — and the two people telling it.

Mara Brock Akil is one of the most successful showrunners in Hollywood ("Girlfriends," "The Game," "Being Mary Jane"). If she has a "voice," it's maybe a combination of "Girlfriends' " Joan Clayton (Tracee Ellis Ross) or "Being Mary Jane's" Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union): strong, funny, independent and incapable of subservience. Akil's entire creative output also appears dedicated to the proposition that true love is not only elusive but may in fact be a unicorn.

And then along comes "Love Is __" to say "never mind." It's real after all, and Mara Brock Akil, along with her thinly disguised younger self, Nuri, are living proof.

"Love Is __" has the perfect home at OWN, with its feel-good aspirational vibes and the strongest woman in show business at the helm. It's a show about female empowerment, optimism, self-respect and mutual respect. It's about the necessity of understanding and of getting over the humps and slogging through the bad times while relishing the good.

It's also, yes, a little dull. Absent narrative tension and suffused with a soft romantic glow, "Love Is __" can sometimes seem like a Luther Vandross song on an endless loop. Nothing wrong with Luther (he's great). That endless loop is the problem.

There is some sharp, assured writing here, and at least one head-turning observation (by Yasir) that fully demands deeper exploration or explanation: "When a light-skinned woman cuts her hair, it's basically a rejection of her light-skinned privilege, and a public pledge aligning her identity closer to her blackness." Wow, really? Do tell us more. "Love Is __" doesn't bother.

And as good as Weaver and her Nuri are, the best scenes belong to Victor and her Angela Brown. She's the more recognizable Akil protagonist — funny, profane and wise to the ways of men and to the internet where she looks for them.

Yup, love is patient, kind and never having to say you're sorry, but it doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor either.

BOTTOM LINE Never bet against a show created by Mara Brock Akil, but feel-good "Love Is __" could use a little more edge and a lot more dramatic tension.

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