UnPrisoned, the new Onyx Collective dramedy on Hulu starring Delroy Lindo and Kerry Washington as father and daughter, breaks all the TV rules by getting both real and funny. Washington, who also produces the show, plays Paige, a family therapist in Minneapolis whose life is not as together as it perhaps should be. When her father Edwin is released from prison after serving 17 years, he ends up living with her and her teenage son Finn, who has never had a consistent father figure. Having her father around is of course triggering, especially since it comes with his loyal one-time girlfriend Nadine whom Paige has disliked since her teenage years. As the daughter and father find their rhythm together, their respective trauma as well as guilt and insecurities take center stage. It’s a mix that is very groundbreaking for television.

“When I think about why the show is groundbreaking, I think about the 80 million Americans who are living with criminal records and the fact that we try to push their stories into the margins,” says Washington. “There was another journalist who said, ‘we tell a lot of stories about folks going into prison, but we don't talk a lot about the challenges people face when they're returning citizens.’ And so we're so proud to be telling that story, to be illuminating what it means to be a formerly incarcerated person and what it means to be somebody who loves a formerly incarcerated person.” Lindo adds that “neither one of us thought about being funny. We did think about being truthful in the moment.”

A lot of that truth, which creates empathy and understanding, along with laughs, is inspired by Tracy McMillan’s real life. If McMillan’s name rings a bell, perhaps you’re familiar with her hit OWN show Family or Fiancé. As a relationship expert, normally it’s McMillan getting others to open up and share. Not the other way around. McMillan says she unlocked aspects of her own personal life to create UnPrisoned because “my bigger purpose is about healing the Black family and healing generational trauma. And mass incarceration is a big part of that. In my own story, my dad was in prison almost my whole life. He went in when I was three and was in and out. And then his last sentence was 19 years.”

Fortunately, she found a kindred spirit in legendary Living Single creator and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser. “My father is Edwin,” Bowser shared back in January. “My father was very charming, charismatic, [but] made some choices that he thought were going to benefit his family, but they did not.  He joked that he was too smart to get caught, so he never actually did time, but he spent a lot of his time doing nefarious, felonious things separating him from his family.  So, I grew up wishing I had another father, a regular father with a regular job who had regular friends, but that was not my life.”

That has not been Paige’s life either. Her mother was not in her life and her father was in and out of it. To the anger and hurt of Nadine, Paige calls a much older white Christian woman mom, which is a point of contention in the show. Because of whom her father has been, Paige dates white men and is an entanglement. Her son Finn is biracial but does not know his father. 

A lot of times when Paige finds herself in emotionally challenging moments, she either retreats into her inner child or converses with her. Little Paige is played by the adorable nine-year-old Jordyn McIntosh, one of EBONY’s 2023 Leaders of the New School. The Atlanta native tells EBONY that to channel Washington “I would watch clips of her but, also, at the same time if I don’t know what to do or don’t have an idea of what to do, I would always watch her reactions first and study her.”

Wearing pint-size versions of the older Paige’s outfits was a real treat for McIntosh who assures EBONY that “me and Miss Kerry were the fashion icons on the show. We would walk in the room and be like ‘yes the Paiges are here.’” With every outfit, she says “soon as I put it on, I'm like, ‘I am fashionable. I am great. I am famous. I'm amazing.’”

Faly Rakotohavana’s Finn is caught between his mom Paige and granddad Edwin. Because Paige didn’t want her son on the emotional rollercoaster she experienced as a kid, this is the first time he’s interacting with his grandfather. 

“He's at a point in his life where he's going from child to adult,” says Ralotohavana. “He's taught a lot about himself, his heritage, his culture. And he's taught a lot about that through this new male figure that just literally appeared in his life.”

Another man that’s in their lives is Edwin’s criminal justice social caseworker Mal, played by Marque Richardson, perhaps best known as Reggie in Netflix's Dear White People. Mal is different from most men, Black or white, Paige has encountered.

“He’s a rock for Edwin, he’s a rock for Paige, but, also, he’s human,” says Richardson of Mal. “As we see in this situationship love-ish triangle between Mal, Edwin and Paige, whether it’s ethical or not that’s on y’all to decide, but Mal is not perfect. Kudos to Tracy, the creator and the writers who really display the complexity of humanity and relationships and the effects of incarceration on families and the lifelong sentence that that has on us, especially Black and brown families. This is complex, this is life, this is real.”

Binge all eight episodes of UnPrisoned now on Hulu.

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.