[INTERVIEW] Malcolm-Jamal Warner Talks Life After Tracee Ellis Ross

Reed Between the Lines cast

Last year, when EBONY paid a visit to the set of BET’s forthcoming show, Reed Between the Lines, the narrative was clear: this was to be a vital moment in scripted television.

A college-educated, African-American couple in love and on television?

Oh, yes.

The original show costarred and was executive produced by both Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Tracee Ellis Ross—two television vets who delivered a picture of Black, educated, upper class-dom for the masses through their former shows, The Cosby Show and Girlfriends.

Naturally, it drew Cosby comparisons, and expectations were high. But shortly after the season ended, the network hadn’t made the call about bringing the show back.

Then the word came: Ross wanted to do an NBC pilot, and in order to do that, she wouldn’t be able to shoot the second season of the BET show. (She’d said that even though she wanted to return, she didn’t want to pass up a good opportunity. The NBC show ultimately wasn’t picked up.)

So now, after much retooling, Reed Between the Lines is currently shooting in Atlanta, and will begin airing at the top of the New Year. New characters on the show come from Tony Rock and Michole White.

EBONY.com recently hung out with Warner in his trailer on the set of the series, and he says he’s hopeful that fans will invest in the repackaged series. And maybe, he says, folks will even find a little bit of something we rarely see in pop culture: a Black man taking care of his family on his own.

EBONY.com: You carry this dual role in that you produce the show and you also are the star of the show. Where did you start to repackage the series minus your former leading lady?

Malcolm-Jamal Warner: Well, the bulk of that work really started with Felicia Henderson. Felicia was hired to kind of redevelop the show without Tracee, so she had the biggest task. For me, a lot of it was trusting her. Because I think if there is anybody who had the biggest doubts about—not so much in terms of my ability to do the show, but just the biggest doubt of how you make the show work—it was me. The biggest response from people—whether people liked the show or hated the show or just thought it was okay—was that the best thing about the show was the chemistry between Tracee and I. So I was really skeptical. If everybody agrees that that’s the best thing about the show, you take that away, then how do you continue the show? So I think Felicia really had the biggest challenge. She is a really strong show-runner, a really strong producer, came in and was very invested in the show from day one.

Sure, there are deadbeat dads out there, but at the same time there are single fathers out there who are holding it down who don’t get as much light. So it gives us a really good opportunity to actually represent that.

EBONY.com: Last year, you, Tracee and I talked about the significance of seeing a professional African-American couple on-screen in love, and now you have to switch gears. Will this show still work?

MJW: I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised. Like I said, I was one of the biggest doubters. I was like, how are we going to make that work? But Felicia has such a great sense of story and character. Last year, our biggest asset was the chemistry between Tracee and I. I think this year our biggest asset is Felicia’s sense of character and storytelling.

EBONY.com We’ve read that she’s welcome back. Might we see Tracee in season two at all?

MJW: Well, our season two is eight episodes and we’re six episodes in, so…probably not.

EBONY.com: Got it. So where is this series going to pick up?

MJW: Last season was about this couple who love each other and their family. This year is about a cat who thought he had the perfect marriage and the perfect family and all of a sudden finds himself a single dad trying to pick up the pieces and figure out, wow, what happened? And the thing that’s really a trip is telling people about what the show is this year, just how many stories I’ve heard from men who are in that situation. I’ve met men who have been married 19, 20 years, and all of a sudden the wife decides one day she needs to find herself.

EBONY.com: We normally see the man going away. Sounds like this will be an interesting dynamic to see played out on an African-American show.

MJW: Right. And it gives us an opportunity to really combat the image of the deadbeat dad. Sure, there are deadbeat dads out there, but at the same time there are single fathers out there who are holding it down who don’t get as much light. So it gives us a really good opportunity to actually represent that. And a lot of men do live that life.