Don Cornelius (Sinqua Walls) has gotten his money, he’s managed to book Gladys Knight (Kelly Rowland), and now it’s time to go into production. But the beginning of the episode is saddening. We have the first black-owned and black-controlled TV show, and at the tippy top of the episode, there’s “a caviar eating, golf playing, Sinatra lovin’ white boy” named Brooks Donald (James Devoti) insisting Don needs him to be able to work with white advertisers and land the dream account, Coca Cola. Even though he’s a drunk and a screw-up, he’s Don’s only hope. (Are they Greenbook’ing Soul Train?) One of the greatest things about the first years of the show was Johnson Products’ work with black-owned ad agency Burrell Communications in the creation of the incredible Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen commercials. You can’t help but feel that Don himself would be furious at the inclusion of this Brooks character telling his TV self, “You colored guys have no idea the power you have,” and calling his wife “sweetheart.”
Cornelius spends this episode hanging out with Gladys, setting advertisers up with celebrity impersonator call-girls so they don’t drop the show, and ignores his wife’s phone calls until it’s possibly too late. The picture of American Soul Don, if not Don in real life, is becoming clearer: he’s singularly focused on accomplishing his dream, to the detriment of his marriage. But he’s also afraid of blowing it, and he covers that fear with machismo and the exterior of unwavering confidence. He recounts his run-in with the cops on his first day in L.A. to Gladys the way he wishes it had gone; with him standing up to the cop. Then immediately after, stands up to a Motown label rep when she dictates the terms of Gladys’ performance. Our guess is this inner conflict is going to be the driver in Don’s story as the show continues.
The Clarke twins kill their Soul Train audition and are added to the show, although Kendall (Jelani Winston) reveals to his mom that he got called for service and doesn’t know how long he’ll stay on as a dancer. Tessa gives Brooks her a** to kiss and finally gets praise from Don after the first show. Gerald gets his first discount booking at the club (thanks to the act being in town for Soul Train) and has a new side hustle: honey.
Then there’s JT (Christopher Jefferson). Bless his heart. After JT walks in on his landlord “taking the rent money out of (his) mama’s a**,” (prepare to clutch your pearls!) JT hooks up with an old high school friend for a reparations-by-robbery mission. His friend sells him on the idea of justified retribution for the pillaging of Africa (Raise your hand if you just learned CRIP was an acronym for Continuous Revolution in Progress while watching this episode.) Obviously, the robbery goes left, a cop is shot at the scene – and it’s the “good cop” from Cornelius’ traffic stop in episode one. Another cop is called for back-up, and it’s Tessa’s husband. Is this Crash? As big as L.A. is, in these two episodes we’ve had our primary and now secondary characters cross paths and intersect in random ways. Now JT’s on the run and shook. Guess he’s not going to join the Clarke’s in the Soul Train Gang.
What this episode got right: The first episode of Soul Train was replicated almost exactly – the on-air part, anyway— from Don’s clothes, to his lines, to the performances. The set and energy were spot-on (thanks in part to legendary choreographer Fatima Robinson). The on-set pettiness was probably spot-on, too, based on insider stories from original show dancers.
What it could have done without: Joseph Clarke’s (Joseph Lee Anderson) entire storyline. After a misdirection with another soldier injured in the field, we all believed Clarke is heading home. Someone asked on Twitter just as Joseph was boarding the chopper to head to his departure point, “They ain’t about to do this coming home party like they did James on Good Times, are they?” Damn, damn, DAMN!” They sure did. I’m certain this will connect to Kendall’s draft dilemma, but did we really need to go through that?
What we absolutely don’t believe: That the demo for “Midnight Train to Georgia” was called “Midnight Flight to Houston.”
What we don’t understand: Why Gladys Knight is a major character in this show. We’re waiting to see where they go with this.
We will say, criticism and questions aside, we’re all the way invested in American Soul, and curious to see how these storylines are woven together into the larger fabric of the Soul Train story as the series progresses.
American Soul airs Tuesdays at 9 pm ET/PT on BET.