OWN's romantic comedy 'Love Is' based (somewhat) on reality

Posted June 19, 2018 3:37 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- Yasir, on paper, is no catch. He has no job. He has $98 in food stamps to his name. He is behind on child support. He is on the verge of being homeless. And by episode four, his car is at an impound lot.

Yet thanks to his charm, ambition and good looks, he will eventually snag the girl of his dreams, Nuri.

That's the setup for OWN's first stab at romantic comedy, "Love Is," which is created by Mara Brock Akil and her husband, Salim, now considered a Black Hollywood power couple. She created shows like "Girlfriends," "The Game" and "Being Mary Jane." He helped her produce "The Game" and "Being Mary Jane" and is currently show runner of the CW's hit show "Black Lightning."

"Love Is" is actually a fictionalized version of how the Akils became a couple and debuted Tuesday, June 19.

Shot in Atlanta earlier this year but set largely in late 1990s Los Angeles, "Love Is" bounces between current-day interviews with Yasir and Nuri providing context to flashbacks of their courtship when internet dating was still considered dangerous and pagers and pay phones modes of communication. Season one over 10 episodes covers those precarious early days as they quickly fall in love but then face each other's messy lives.

Nuri (played by Michele Weaver in 1997) is a free spirit juggling several guys but deeply committed to writing for "Marvin," a show that evokes many a 1990s black sitcom e.g. "Moesha" (which Mara wrote for at the time), "Martin" and "Living Single."

When she falls for Yasir (Will Catlett), he is an aspiring writer/director going nowhere in Hollywood.

At a metro Atlanta auto repair shop masquerading as an impound lot in March, Catlett is shooting a scene that will appear in the fourth episode. Yasir is trying to find Nuri's phone number which he had left on a sheet of paper in his 1991 Geo Metro. While trying to convince the impound lot owner to allow him to get his car without having to shell out $438, Yasir asks the man if he's been in love.

"Thirty years," the impound lot owner said proudly, pointing at his wife.

"So from a man in love to a man successful in love," Yiri pleads, "I simply request this: my car, a jump and a use of your phone. You see, in the glove compartment is the phone number of the love of my life. If I can make that phone call and get a jump from you, I could borrow my car for a day."

This scene is like a more financially desperate take on romantic comedic films such as "Serendipity" or "Sleepless in Seattle."

For Catlett -- who was once a production assistant on CBS's "Survivor" -- this is the first lead role of his career: "It's an opportunity I've always dreamed of having. I am trying to take it in stride and ride the wave."

He also had a minor role on "Black Lightning," which gave him a chance to watch Salim in action and pick up "the spirit of the man, a little bit of his DNA." Catlett loves how Yuri is trying to gracefully bow out of a bad relationship while entering a new one he knows will represent his future, his beacon.

In an interview, Mara said the show is not entirely autobiographical. "The essence is real," she said. "I manipulated some of the facts."

And given how personal this story is for her, Mara admits being scared. But that's not a bad thing. "That's exactly where I love to be," she said. "It's interesting after being so successful in my career, I'm not jaded. I still feel like Nuri when she first started in her career."

At the same time, she added, "I am full. I am beyond happy. People say I'm glowing. I'm closer and closer to who I want to be as an artist."

Mara said the concept was originally designed as a three-camera sitcom on ABC but it just missed making the schedule a couple of years back. Then Oprah Winfrey called and Mara was able to re-do the show the way she really wanted to do it: as an hour-long drama.

"I only went with her with this version," Mara said. "She's the only one who heard it the way I wanted to tell it. I wanted it to be almost like a foreign film in its spirit."

Indeed, "Love Is" rolls out at a leisurely pace and isn't reliant on obvious punchlines or overt physical humor. The characters are "fully realized," she noted, with all the nuances of fragility, confidence and stupid decision-making.

And it's not just black men and women in front of the camera but behind the camera as well. Mara made sure, for instance, that all the directors season one were minorities, including the legendary Robert Townsend ("Hollywood Shuffle").

Weaver, who plays a version of Mara as Nuri, said it wasn't quite as weird as it sounds even as Mara gave her direction. "She and I are similar in a lot of ways," she said. "I told her, 'I want to be you when I grow up!'"

But one thing was obvious: how much more overtly sexist or inconsiderate men could be in the 1990s and nobody would blink an eye. "We'd be really offended today by a lot of those jokes," she said.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

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