Originally published in Andscape on June 23rd, 2022.
Flatbush, Brooklyn, is a magical place. From the sound of rowdy teenagers screaming for the back door of the B41 bus to be opened to the scents of bake and saltfish wafting from Caribbean food shops. But that magic has been hard to capture on-screen. Then, Showtime emerged with a series that shows us how it’s done.
Created by and starring Kevin Iso and Dan Perlman, Flatbush Misdemeanors (airing now on Showtime) is a dark comedy that has arguably done the best job at capturing working-class life in New York City since HBO’s How to Make It in America wrapped a decade ago.
“It’s people trying their best — and they’re all trying — but everyone’s kind of consistently falling short,” Perlman, who portrays a foundering high school teacher with a Xanax dependency, told Andscape.
At first, that assessment seems like an overused trope of working-class life in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods. But Perlman emphasized his writers room’s priority was to write characters with as little judgment and as much empathy as possible.
“You have to be able to kind of understand why they’re making that choice, even if it’s the wrong choice,” he said. “The socioeconomics of it, the reality of their positions with their respective jobs and their own f—ed up flaws.”
Perlman’s character is effective because of the actors cast to play his students — especially Zayna, played by Season One breakout star Kristin Dodson, who embodies the steely bombast and irreverence of a New York teenager with a nuance that pushes her character past a quick laugh into a layered and complex role.
“[Kristin] brings so much life and warmth and honesty and energy to the role that she very much just embodies that character and makes it, you know, three-dimensional in a way that it springs off the page,” Perlman said. “[She exists] with her own wants and needs — she’s not a plot device just for our guys, she is living her own life … [Dan’s] not her Mr. Feeny.”
The choice to make Perlman’s character an inadequate teacher, despite his best efforts, was intentional.
“I hate and love those white savior teacher movies. They’re awful. I’ve seen most of them. You know Matthew Perry will play hopscotch with the kids and suddenly they know pre-calc, like, it’s crazy,” said Perlman, who studied education in college. “And so in those movies, there’s always a montage and the principal will be like, ‘You know we’ve gone through 30 teachers in three months, and nobody can teach these kids to read,’ and then Matthew Perry comes in, or whatever. But for me, I was like, my guy would be one of the 30 who failed the kids but they just left him there because nobody cares. They just left him to fail the kids consistently.”
Dan’s failures as a teacher — even when he’s trying to do the right thing — speak to a bleak reality of the allocation of resources in public education, where the mere existence of a willing authority figure often suffices, and savvy teenagers can navigate the power dynamics and capitalize on institutional shortcomings and neglect.
Iso’s character, Kevin, on the other hand, is an artist who is trying to become successful while struggling to define what that looks like. He’s felt more rooted in his creative dreams than any sense of place, but found community in Flatbush. Much of his emotional journey through the series is influenced by Iso’s evolution as a stand-up comic, with one of this season’s episodes situated in the character’s home state of Louisiana.
“The development of it didn’t take much work because it was such a personal story,” Iso said. “There’s a lot of emotions inside of that episode and the people that we cast — Ali Siddiq, who plays my dad, I’ve known him since I was 18 years old just doing stand-up. I got booed at his club in Houston. And so, like 12 years later, I’m saying, ‘Yo, come do this on Showtime.’ It felt really good.”
Kevin’s character both shirks accountability for his goals and resents those around him for not understanding his passions. He learns the hard way, as most young students of the arts do, that all that glitters is not gold, whether it be old mentors, old lovers or new art fellowships. Perhaps most poignantly, Kevin navigates the ongoing dialogue of generational conflict with sharp and layered dialogue.
“I really feel like we’re hard on our parents, the same way that they’re hard on us just because they don’t understand what we seem to understand. But how can you have somebody understand something that they have no basis of understanding in their own lives?” asked Iso. “This is your dream. That’s why they call it a dream. It’s yours. It’s for you to then make a reality for other people to see.
“There’s a Lupe [Fiasco] line where he says, ‘Being broke teaches you how to hustle.’ You gotta remember that feeling, that deep feeling inside your soul that you’re burning, like, I really want to do this thing. You still gotta follow that all the way to the edge, you know, whatever the results are. That’s why I live life … the perks are cool, but that’s not why I do it.”
The exploration of the why comes to a head this season in the form of an art fellowship, which brings Kevin’s character in direct conflict with institutional expectations as he strives to reach the next level in his career. That cyclical “rise and grind” energy is familiar to many young adults in creative industries. Whether it’s working in a roti shop like Kevin, delivering for Uber Eats to help make rent, passing the same $200 to one another on Venmo, or scrambling to a networking event. Like in real life, this season all of the characters on Flatbush Misdemeanors are confronting the nihilistic patterns that can evolve out of an attempt to make a life for yourself in an unforgiving metropolis.
“They have to face what their issues are in a more direct way or they’re just going to collide. For Dan in [Narcotics Anonymous], he’s either going to fix this or he’s going to careen off a cliff. Kevin, he wants to focus on his art. OK, here is an art fellowship you can do it now,” Perlman said of the upcoming season. “Drew [Zayna’s uncle, played by Hassan Johnson, who was Wee-Bey on The Wire] has been going down this path for a while without having to directly face what he’s doing or how it’s impacted his family in this very direct way. They’re all trapped in these institutional, bureaucratic things, whether it’s the first season with the landlord and their neighbor, or this season — Dan gets his job back, but once he gets his job back it’s like, OK now you’re in this bureaucratic system instantly.”
In speaking about Flatbush, Diane Exavier, a Haitian American poet and playwright, elaborated on the neighborhood of her birth: “There are so many different kinds of Brooklyn. … What you get in Flatbush are not just visual modifiers or metaphors of ‘Brooklyn life,’ but rooted and active behaviors, traditions, sounds, tastes and textures of people who have movement in their bones. The point of Flatbush, in my experience, has never been to settle or take over. Flatbush is about a kind of constant, chaotic flux.”
Flatbush Misdemeanors thrives in that chaotic flux, with a willingness to dive into the messiness of the human condition and how it specifically applies to Flatbush. And after watching the show, you might even get a recommendation for a local neighborhood restaurant or two.