After a few heavy episodes, there’s lighter energy in this episode of American Soul – and honestly, the show needed it. Finally, some of the elements we loved most about Soul Train are showcased. The moment we’ve been waiting for happens at last: seeing one of Soul Train’s legendary Afro Sheen commercials. George Johnson (founder and owner of Afro Sheen’s parent company) is back for the first time since the series started to counsel Don on ad creative instead of Brooks. Raven Goodwin brought brightness to the increasingly contentious vibe in the Soul Train Gang as newcomer and aspiring dancer Violet. The Soul Train Scramble Board is in effect. A reporter from Right On! magazine, the preeminent black teen entertainment periodical and early supporter of the show, is on the scene. And Wayne Brady delivered a hilarious – and spot-on – turn as Little Richard; the best use of the celebrity cameos on the show since Bobby Brown’s appearance as Rufus Johnson.
The American Soul characters are feeling more unencumbered, too. The combination of finally hitting a stride with talent for the show, and hitting something else regularly with Ilsa Dejarnette has Don at ease and smiling. Even his normal complaints and criticisms of Tessa’s choices come with a smirk. Dick Clarke requests a sit down with Don and George and offers to buy Soul Train, confirming the show’s potential and value to Don. But we were wrong about Ilsa – we thought she’d be upset once Don had to turn some attention back to his family, but Ms. Dejarnette is very busy and Don learned the hard way when he showed up at her house unannounced. How are you the married one, and you get played, Don?
Simone Clarke is ready to turn up for her 18th birthday and makes plans for JT to come see her gig at the jazz club. He doesn’t show, but her acting teacher, Professor Haygood (Brad James), does. Let’s go back for a minute to American Soul’s premiere, when Tessa dropped in on a Grease rehearsal to scout dancers. Professor Haygood told Tessa that Simone was almost as good as she used to be, and Tessa replied, “Be careful, she might actually believe the dreams that you sell.” We know there’s a Svengali-figure in Tessa’s past who derailed her career ambitions. Haygood might be the one.
Now, he’s telling Simone how talented she is, that he has “a producer friend,” that she should give NY a shot…and Simone is completely seduced by the praise. Somebody send baby girl a Lauryn Hill album so she can get her mind right, please.
Kendall Clarke has way too much dip on his chip and gets it smacked clean off by his mama. Kendall is convinced Private Barker is trying to take his father’s place and charges at him in the kitchen (why would this boy think he could take on a whole soldier?). After Nate almost swings on everybody in a PTSD-triggered response, Kendall asks Brianne “what the hell” she was thinking to bring him into the house. Brianne later admits that having the young (and fine) soldier around makes her feel like Joseph Clarke is still present. Kendall gives her an ultimatum: have him out of the house by the time he and Simone return from the Soul Train bus tour, or he’s moving out. Kendall ain’t got no money to make financially-related threats, but whatever. Nate packs his things to leave and confesses his personal sins to Brianna. She wants him to stay and admits she has sins of her own. Is a Brianna backstory on the way?
Tessa is feeling herself, too. She’s regained her confidence and is no longer shaken by Don’s tantrums. She catches Flo and the Soul Train Gang running scam auditions in the parking lot for $5 a pop. After observing them insulting the confident, full-bodied Violet, Tessa offers the young woman a gig as her assistant. When torment from the gang continues on the set, Tessa sends Violet to wardrobe and makeup and puts her on the Soul Train line. Violet reminds Tessa of her childhood self being teased about her weight before finding confidence through dance. When Don complains about the waste of time and money since Violet’s trip down the line won’t be used in the final show edit, Tessa tells him “remembering who I am, remembering that I have a dream, and doing everything possible to make that dream come true” is worth it, and quits. Then she goes to eat fried chicken, greens, potato salad and apple pie with Violet.
Gerald is Gerald-ing on 100 this episode. Things are lit at the club for the Muhammad Ali/ Buster Mathis fight party – even Farrah Fawcett is in the house – and he stands to hit a massive payday if Ali wins. He outsmarts his big boss’ attempt to teach him a lesson (the lesson = killing him), delivers a Gerald-style beat down (which comes with car trunk accommodations), and proves himself valuable as the crime organization’s top earner, ensuring safety from another power struggle with his boss – for now. He’s got to keep generating revenue in new ways and asks Don for an office at Soul Train. Don is no stranger to shady dealings but has no idea what his silent partner is really about. Anybody who says they brought Memphis with them to L.A. is not to be played with.
What this episode got right: When Soul Train started beating American Bandstand’s ratings in major urban markets, Dick Clarke did attempt to buy the show. When Don refused, Clarke launched his own, short-lived, low sodium, fat-free, gluten-free imitation of Soul Train, called Soul Unlimited.
What it could have done without: The PTSD moments with Private Barker – the disturbing music, the flashbacks – are starting to feel overused.
What we absolutely don’t believe: That the host and owner of a live entertainment show intentionally brought a reporter with him into some celebrity mess. Or that Right On!, which focused on The Jackson Five and teen-centered acts in its early years, cared about what Little Richard was doing.
What we don’t understand: How Don went from struggling to poppin’ in two episodes, with no clear explanation. Are we to assume it’s a combination of his partnership with Gerald plus his relationship with Ilsa?
There are four episodes left in this season, and we’re curious to see where American Soul takes the various storylines. This isn’t a fast-moving show, but it’s ambitious in the story-telling. That combination makes for a challenging season back-end. Based on previews, episode 7 may be the first without a celebrity cameo, so it will also be interesting to see how American Soul adds an extra oomph without that element.