TV Review: Diarra from Detroit

Diarra from Detroit

There are a lot of familiar elements baked into BET+’s Diarra from Detroit, the first scripted original series from BET Studios; its first three episodes play like a mix of Bored to Death and Insecure (with a few healthy dashes of Columbo and Poker Face thrown in). However, thanks to its stunningly confident creative voice, it is more than capable of standing on its own two feet, beyond being just a collection of its influences (a rarity for new series in 2024). Created by and starring Diarra Kilpatrick (Perry Mason, American Koko), Diarra from Detroit‘s opening hours are an impressive salvo of humor, mystery, and pathos, a worthy adaptation of classic noir elements – with an undeniably enjoyable delivery, easily making it one of 2024’s best new series.

Diarra from Detroit (which debuts March 21 on BET+; I’ve seen the first three episodes) centers itself on a schoolteacher who finds herself in a moment of crisis. After separating from her husband (Morris Chestnut), Diarra Brickland finds herself at a crossroads in her life, her identity lost in a hurricane of confusion, self-loathing, and loneliness after her husband tried to ask for an “open marriage”. In other words, a classic hard-boiled detective setup (you know, the kind where the protagonist isn’t actually a detective), translated to a Black woman living in modern Detroit (unfortunately, the show was filmed in New Jersey due to Michigan’s lack of tax incentives, which does rob the show of the natural texture of its intended setting).

Diarra from Detroit

After her first post-separation Tinder date disappears, seemingly into thin air, Diarra finally finds a distraction from the depressing empty family home (and life) she’s experiencing; although her friends – who range from her gay co-worker Reggie (or Mr. Tea), to her entrepreneurial, religious friend Aja – think she’s gone insane after one night of good dick, Diarra throws herself through the looking glass of cold missing persons cases, nights in BDSM clubs, and various aspects of the Detroit underworld (you know, like any inquisitive school teacher would!).

Part distraction and part perseverance, Diarra quickly, and smartly, blurs the line of Diarra’s driving motivations and why she takes on the case of a missing person (who may or may not be missing for the first time). She questions her own motivations as she chases after a man she nicknamed Ambien (after the peaceful, post-coital sleep she enjoyed their first night together), as she begins to be pulled into a seedy story of kidnapping, murder and corruption  – all delivered through Diarra’s point of view and regular voiceover monologues, which adds to the hardboiled, soft covered storytelling at its core.

The result, as one would expect, is a twisting trail of breadcrumbs only starting to reveal itself by the third episode (which features Phylicia Rashad in a particularly enjoyable guest role, her character talking about the sexual talents of the original Temptations members); but whether Diarra from Detroit is able to be a coherent mystery series or not is really secondary, as is often the case with series of this ilk. A good mystery series is only as interesting as its protagonist and the world they live in; thankfully, Diarra’s strongest elements come from its world and character building, particularly that of its protagonist, and the other two women in her life trying to find peace and purpose in their lives.

It is undeniably a lot; not only is there the central mystery, which involves Russian hitmen, BDSM sex clubs (featuring “the only dominatrix with a minor in Africana studies”), and regretful mothers, but there are a number of ancillary stories Diarra uses to stretch the running time of its episodes, many of which feel a bit of out of place amongst the central narrative. That sounds a bit reductive to Aja’s annoying journey of professional self-discovery and Modi’s family financial issues – while I appreciate their presence, they are slight momentum killers, cluttering up the “clue of the week” plot structure with tonally dissonant asides only detracting from Diarra’s kinetic, hilarious adventures (Modi and Diarra’s re-emerging friendship being the exception, the one secondary story that shows off its emotional potential in the third episode).

Diarra from Detroit

There are other minor quips to find in Diarra‘s first three episodes,  from some of its tonal inconsistency to its inability to build atmosphere visually (despite some really strong cinematography in important moments). Those occasional hiccups are quickly smoothed over, however,  by the show’s engaging ability to keep moving; whether chasing punchlines or answers to mysteries, Diarra from Detroit‘s early hours never linger on anything (unlike its main character, known as Captain Extra to her friends) for too long. 

This sometimes leads to the aforementioned wild swings in tone from moment to moment, but it also allows the show to stay nimble, in a way that reminds me of Atlanta‘s early seasons, or something in the vein of a prototypical mid-2010’s Sundance Channel or AMC series (not Low Winter Sun or The Killing, though… obviously).

Ambitious and well-calibrated, Diarra from Detroit is an impressive series debut for Kilpatrick, who takes some of the tone and humor from her ABC web series American Koko (a web series that was a few years ahead of its time for the Streaming Era, but a show with undeniable serialization skills), injecting the genre of hardboiled detective noir with an infectious, relatable mid-life crisis story (and a welcome bit of horniness, I might add) that I hope can maintain its momentum through the rest of its eight-episode first season.

Grade: B+

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