Deji LaRay remembered when television shows like “Sex in the City” and “Insecure” captured the essence of friendships among women, but then realized there was hardly any male-driven stories being told in the same manner.
LaRay saw a lack of shows from the perspective of Black men and decided to create his own. He teamed up with retired NFL running back-turned-actor Thomas Q. Jones to develop the new series “Johnson,” which premieres Sunday on Bounce TV. Cedric the Entertainer, star of “The Neighborhood” on CBS is a co-executive producer.
The series revolves around four lifelong friends — all sharing the same last name Johnson but not related. The lead characters are specifically written from the Black male point-of-view to explain why men make certain decisions that revolve around friendships, love and heartbreak.
LaRay said he wanted to insert “real, heartfelt and honest” conversations that men would have in the man cave or pool hall.
“I felt like it was time to tell a story about men that I knew,” said LaRay, who played roles in “Bosch ” “Age of the Living Dead” and “Greenleaf.” The actor chose the show’s title because the surname Johnson is one of the most common within the African American community.
“I just felt like there wasn’t really a balance when it came to showing the Black male perspective on things that really matter, such as love and marriage and religion and politics,” he continued. “This was a way to create an unfiltered voice and give other cultures and Black women a chance to peel back those layers and see how we really feel about certain topics.”
Cedric the Entertainer said he was hooked by the story’s premise after reading the first draft. He felt compelled to work on the project after meeting with Jones then seeing LaRay's “sincerity of what he wanted to accomplish.”
The legendary comedian said “Johnson” offers another glimpse of Black men who he says are sometimes depicted in society as violent alpha males, gang members and drug dealers. He said the series will highlight strong-willed men who are allowed to show their vulnerability similar to male leading roles in films such as “The Wood,” “The Best Man” and “The Brothers.”
“We want people to find themselves in this story,” he said. “I want people to see that this does really represent my friend group. Everybody over here don’t fight. All my partners aren’t hard. I got a friend who falls in love every time he sees a woman.”
Along with LaRay and Jones, the series stars Philip Smithey, Derrex Brady and comedian D.L. Hughley. The first season touches on several hard conversations including self-confidence, mental health and racism.
Hughley said he was proud to work on the series because it dispels several stereotypes about Black men.
“The one misconception is that we’re not human, that we don’t love, that we don’t take care of our children,” said Hughley, who plays a preacher turned podcaster and mentor of the four friends. “I think this gives you another vantage point.”
Jones said the idea for “Johnson” was pitched to several networks but found a “perfect home” at Bounce TV. He said the network — which targets African Americans — afforded them more creative control compared to going elsewhere.
“We wanted to make the show the way we wanted to make it,” said Jones, who played in “P-Valley” and “Luke Cage.” “Otherwise, it wouldn’t be any different than other ones that you’ve seen. That’s why we are proud and happy to be a part of the Bounce family, because they allowed us to do that.”
Eric C. Rhone, a co-executive producer on the show, said pitching the idea for a series with four Black male leads is typically a challenge. But he said delivering the idea of their project was an easy one to sell to David Hudson, executive vice president of original programming for Katz Networks, which oversees projects for several networks including Bounce TV.
“The reason he got it is because he’s an African American man,” Rhone said. “I think what happens in Hollywood, a lot of Black projects start out being really real, truthful and reflective of our culture. But by the time it’s sold, and other people get their imprint on it, it oftentimes come out on the other end or what’s aired is not the original project. It’s not the same content. It’s not the same cultural experience.”
LaRay said it was imperative to maintain creative freedom to tell the Black male’s perspective along with giving women on the show a powerful voice too.
“In reality, we are nothing without our women,” he said. “This isn’t just a show where a bunch of guys are giving their opinions on everything. Nah, this is us trying to come to some sort of a resolution or a common ground on a lot of controversial topics. Yes, things haven’t been traditionally balanced on a lot of shows. But we want to make sure that it was balanced.”