Television has become a lot more colorful over the past decade, since critics declared a new Golden Age. One of the many pioneers associated with that revolution is Kerry Washington.
After appearing in a number of films like Save The Last Dance, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and I Think I Love My Wife, the Bronx native was catapulted into global fame as the ultimate fixer Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal. It was the first time a Black woman led a primetime network drama since 1975 when Teresa Graves starred in ABC’s Get Christie Love!, a rather embarrassing statistic. The series also marked another smash hit for Shonda Rhimes, one of the few Black, female showrunners thriving in TV at the time.
Since then, Washington has starred in the critically acclaimed Hulu miniseries Little Fires Everywhere, which she also executive produced. By the time that show arrived in 2020, Washington’s success as a dramatic TV actress and producer felt less like an anomaly and more like an increasing norm for women of color in front of and behind the camera.
Her latest project, UnPrisoned, which Washington stars in and executive producers, is another testament to Black artists’ ever-growing ability to share unique stories in our current streaming age. The half-hour comedy, on Hulu this Friday, follows a therapist named Paige Alexander (Washington) navigating the homecoming of her formerly incarcerated father Edwin (Delroy Lindo).
Created by former Mad Men writer Tracy McMillan, it’s a multi-generational story about emotional trauma and missed connections. Despite its weighty themes, it manages to uncover the humor within the pair’s pain and dysfunction.
UnPrisoned also marks the first scripted comedy series from the Onyx Collective. Launched by Disney in 2021, the content brand boasts a series of projects from Black artists and artists of color, mostly on Hulu, including the Oscar-winning documentary Summer of Soul and 1619 Project. In an ideal world, Black creatives wouldn’t have to rely on special programming initiatives for the sort of opportunities white artists are casually granted. Still, Washington appreciates working in such a diversity-minded environment, allowing the show to explore specific, intracommunal ideas that would take some explaining on a less inclusive set.
“If there’s a story about a Black character, a lot of that time gets spent explaining Blackness, defining Blackness, interpreting Blackness for your co-collaborators,” Washington told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. “When you have more than one Black voice at the table, you get to sort of acknowledge the Blackness, celebrate the Blackness, and also go deeper into the human-ness.”
Lindo, whose screen-acting career dates back to the ’70s, says that even being in a makeup trailer surrounded by people of color is a bit startling. It’s an experience he only recalls having acting in various Spike Lee projects. Before his almost Oscar-nominated role in 2020’s Da 5 Bloods, the London native played prominent roles in Malcolm X, Crooklyn, and Clockers.
“It’s still a rarity,” said the Tony-nominated actor about racially inclusive sets. “And so the fact that Onyx has this as part of their stated mission to tell stories that are about us—it’s incredibly special.”
As is the story of UnPrisoned, which borrows from McMillan’s personal experiences growing up with an incarcerated father. Historically, the chaos that occurs within prisons—and the crime that lands people there—has made for reliable and often good television drama and even comedy. UnPrisoned, however, is solely interested in the emotional wreckage caused at home when a person spends years behind bars away from their family. How does one make up for that lost time? And can those wounds ever truly be healed? How much accountability do people serving often egregious, unfair sentences owe to their families?
“In this country, there are 80 million people living with a criminal record,” Washington said. “And for each one of those people, there’s a circle of loved ones around them. And all of those people are impacted by the criminal justice system.”
The Scandal star added, “There are lots of stories about people going into prison, lots of stories about what it’s like in prison—but to excavate this story of what it is like to come out and try to really free yourself, not just your body but your mind and your heart.”
Not so ironically, the show’s messages about freedom ultimately speak more to Paige, who understandably struggles to embrace her flawed father. Her resentment is often masked in sarcasm and insults, until the wounded child inside of her can’t help but pop out. And quite literally she does when the younger version of Paige (Jordyn McIntosh) appears abruptly in fantasy sequences for emotional check-ins with her adult self.
Meanwhile, Edwin is rebuilding a relationship with his girlfriend, Nadine (Brenda Strong) and forging a brand-new one with his grandchild, Paige’s teenage son Finn (Faly Rakotohavana)–which brings his daughter even more anxiety. We also witness the difficulties formerly incarcerated people experience re-entering society, especially the workforce. One of the few places Edwin is able to find employment is a Salvation Army-type thrift store that’s less than charitable to human beings who actually work there.
It’s in these moments of adversity and marginalization, though, that we get to see what a charismatic, generous human being Edwin is at his core. Despite his obvious misdeeds, which the show doesn’t totally let him off the hook for, it’s refreshing to see a convicted felon portrayed in such a warm, fuzzy manner.
“Tracy said to me that, meeting her dad, you wouldn’t know that he had been formerly incarcerated,” Lindo said. “That was a real clue for me because this is a man who is charming and presents a certain kind of way, who happens to have this in his past.”
Speaking of pasts, Lindo could also empathize with the baggage Paige carries on the show from being in foster care as a child.
“I spent time in foster families as a child,” he said. “I know that the circumstances that placed me there were not arbitrary. But it was like, stuff happens. That doesn’t then define you or set the trajectory of your life.”
Lindo delivers most of the show’s chuckles throughout the season, while Washington is more of a straight character. Still, Paige’s messiness, despite her occupation dishing out advice, brings to mind Sex and The City’s Carrie Bradshaw, an archetype we’re not used to seeing the usually posh and put-together Washington play very often. Both actors are known for delivering impassioned monologues in more intense roles. The sitcom genre is less familiar territory.
“I love doing poignant dramatic work, which lives in the show,” Washington said. “But also, one of the most fun weeks of my life was hosting [Saturday Night Live].”
Watching Washington and Lindo go toe-to-toe, you’re reminded of the well-touted but still surprising notion that dramatic actors often make damn good comedians. Lindo admits that he didn’t even approach the series “trying to be funny or witty.” Washington notes that there’s an innate humor in watching flawed human beings.
“I remember one day thinking very early on in filming, ‘What are we doing?’” Washington laughed. “Delroy and I are like, ‘We’re both these dramatic, theater-trained actors.’ But what we were doing was embodying the human experience. And in reality, human beings are funny. We all have funny family members. We all have funny moments.”
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