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There's a lot to love in the 'Hair Love'-inspired TV series 'Young Love'

Issa Rae voices Angela, Brooke Monroe Conaway plays Zuri and Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi is Stephen in Max's <em>Young Love</em>.
Issa Rae voices Angela, Brooke Monroe Conaway plays Zuri and Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi is Stephen in Max's Young Love.

Updated September 21, 2023 at 11:52 AM ET

Zuri is a precocious 7-year-old who keeps her parents on their toes.

One moment, she's about to shave her face using her dad's shaving cream and razor (mom and dad, in a burst of parental intuition, jump into the bathroom to stop that, just in the nick). In another, she's trying to be nice as her mom tugs her hair into a frazzle of braids that her dad has to secretly undo and redo.

Zuri's mom Angela is off her game for a good reason: she's stepping back into the world after recovering from cancer treatments. And that wonderful combination of cute kid and struggling parents is what distinguishes Young Love, which is a new series on Max spun out of an Oscar-winning short film.

Issa Rae provides the voice of Angela, a hair stylist who is nervous enough about returning to her old salon that she circles Zuri's school several times in the morning, delaying the drop-off to avoid going back to work.

Music fans will recognize rap star and actor Scott Mescudi – aka, Kid Cudi – as Zuri's dad Stephen, an aspiring hip hop producer who learned to microwave frozen pancakes for breakfast and used zip ties to corral his daughter's hair while Angela was in the hospital.

"I'm going to act like I didn't hear any of that," Angela says, after learning about Stephen's shortcuts.

Rae and Mescudi are joined by veteran character actors Harry Lennix and Loretta Devine, who play Angela's old-school parents, and Brooke Monroe Conaway shines as Zuri, who sounds super cute and innocent, even when she's cutting up.

Family life that is both universal and specific

This is the bustling, beautiful Black family at the heart of Young Love, which continues the story of characters from the Oscar-winning short film, Hair Love. That six-minute movie, released in 2019 and funded by a Kickstarter campaign, told the story of a Black father taking on a fearsome challenge – fixing his daughter's hair, coached along by an online video.

The kicker at the film's end: The woman coaching in the video was Angela, who was waiting for Zuri and Stephen to pick her up from the hospital. As Zuri hugs her, we see the treatments have taken Angela's hair away.

Young Love's creator Matthew A. Cherry also wrote and co-directed Hair Love, crafting both projects to celebrate and normalize Black hair and Black families.

In Young Love, we see moments when they're like any other family — Millennial parents struggling to balance work, home and an unexpected health scare. But they're also steeped in Black culture, with a mom who works in a Black hair salon and a kid who dreams of sporting the coolest Afro puffs in town.

Issa Rae is Angela and Brooke Monroe Conaway is Zuri on <em>Young Love</em>.
/ Max
Issa Rae is Angela and Brooke Monroe Conaway is Zuri on Young Love.

The TV series also has a different storytelling style than the film, which relied a lot on creative imagery and striking visuals to tell its story. Young Love has slightly more sophisticated animation and a lot more dialogue, with a playful cleverness that centers the family in a caring community, even as they occasionally toss knowing wisecracks at each other.

It's a simple yet entertaining and heartwarming formula. And at a time when so much TV is so cynical and depressing, it's a pleasure to sink into a series that is smart, culturally on point and optimistic about the power of family to overcome all obstacles.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.