American Soul's third episode three opens as the major characters confront various types of loss in their worlds. The Clarke family lays Joseph to rest, accompanied by Babyface’s spare, a capella rendition of “What’s Going On” (Babyface is the music supervisor for American Soul). Tessa digs under her bed to pull out an old dance photo and stare at it longingly. Don is still chasing large bookings like Marvin Gaye - and still hitting a wall - when Delores calls to tell him their oldest son is missing.
The Clarke siblings are processing their grief in different ways. Because of his father’s death, Kendall is now head of household, so his draft is waived. He’s saddled with guilt, “The only reason I’m not in Vietnam right now is because dad died. What do I do with that?” and thinks he needs to get into responsible adult mode (as though he weren’t already a father…but we digress). Simone’s wants to honor her father through her music, and while Kendall and JT want to cancel a gig the group has scheduled, she thinks Joseph would want them to move forward. She sneaks out to perform alone and almost falters during a song dedicated to her dad until JT steps in to join her and save the performance. While Kendall grapples with the idea of becoming the man of the house, Brienne (Kelly Price) actively steps into the role and handles small things that were her husband’s domain; namely, a leaky faucet announcing Joseph’s permanent absence with every drip.
JT is still facing struggles at every turn. We have yet to see this poor boy walk into his apartment without some drama in progress. His mama’s about to burn the house down by leaving a pot on the stove. The CRIPS are about to get him railroaded into an attempted murder charge - mind you, he didn’t even get his rent money out of the heist! And people keep talking to him any kind of way. Even Simone takes shots at him about his dad not being around. His own girlfriend, SMH. They make up after JT joins her to perform, and as they’re cozying up in his blue Chevy Nova to share the most romantic moment two teenagers can share in a car, the cops are issuing an all-points bulletin for that exact make and model and getting names of accomplices. Let’s keep JT lifted in prayer.
We get the first hints of Tessa’s (Iantha Richardson) backstory as she chastises the sassy and ambitious Soul Train dancer Flo for inappropriate conduct with Rufus Thomas (Bobby Brown) before and during the show's taping. “I know you’re reaching for something bigger, but it’s not guys like Rufus who pay the price when everything goes wrong.” She gives the dancer advice she perhaps wishes someone had given her, “I know you. I was you. You’re talented, but you’ve got to start making (better decisions).” (Spoiler alert: the advice lands on deaf ears.) There’s a great scene intercut between Simone’s performance and Tessa dancing alone in the dim Soul Train studio. For the first time since we’ve met her, she’s unguarded and joyful. We anticipate a Svengali story to emerge soon, explaining her failed professional dance career.
Don’s missing son, Tony, shows up on the set of Soul Train just as Don is preparing to catch a flight back to Chicago to find him. This season's first two episodes gave insight into Don’s struggles as a husband, now we learn about his struggles as a father. Throughout the episode, flashbacks to Don’s “lessons” from his tough, abusive father are juxtaposed against his interactions with young Tony. Don struggles to balance the emotional distance and unflinching firmness he was taught – making Tony work “like a man,” when he shows up at the studio, telling him he thinks he’s grown, commanding respect through fear – with the pure love and yearning he sees in his son.
Tony just wants to be with him, whatever that takes. Don wants to break generational cycles, he wants to be a better man and father than his father was – the last flashback is of Don as a young man beating his dad in a fight and declaring his independence – but softness is a challenge for him. When Tony gets back to Chicago, he plays out a version of “Why he don’t want me, Uncle Phil?” with his mother Deloris (Perri Camper), who assures him that his Daddy loves him “so strong that it’ll break the world in two, and whatever he’s done wrong is small when you hold it against that.” (Grown Tony Cornelius, by the way, is the Executive Producer of American Soul.)
What this episode got right: Robert Barisford Brown aka Bobby Brown as Rufus Thomas just made us so incredibly happy, because Bobby was basically playing a future version of himself. Thomas pulling Flo on stage to dance – and Don being mad about it – is based on Soul Train dancer Damita Jo Freeman jumping on stage to dance with singer Joe Tex – and Don being mad about it.
What it could have done without: About three of the flashbacks to Don and his father. We got the point after the first couple of scenes.
What we absolutely don’t believe: That high-class escorts were just sauntering into the studio or Don’s office while the show was taping, with him running a tight ship. Don’s from Chicago, Chicago – you ain’t walking up on him unannounced and unexpectedly.
What we don’t understand: Why we saw a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad, kept hearing talk about ad dollars and accounts, but there’s been no mention of Afro Sheen or Ultra Sheen.
American Soul is still more heavy-handed in some places than we’d prefer; still a little too on-the-nose with dialogue in places. But it’s an acceptable price for an otherwise strong show. The live performances are great – Katlyn Nichol’s voice is amazing - and we're loving the celebrity guests. We're very curious to see Michelle Williams as Diana Ross next week. We did miss Gerald Aims and his antics in this episode, though. Hopefully, he’s back with some new one-liners in episode four.