Navigating the real world as a newly minted college graduate in New York City during the Great Recession of 2008 came with a long list of existential blues, recalls Christine Sanders, who dramatizes some of the struggles she and her friends faced during this period in her scripted web series, Barely Adults.
Released March 27 on Vimeo, the black-created, black-led dramedy is the first series Sanders has written and directed thought her independent production company, Crown Hill Productions.
“I remember the fear across the board no matter what industry you were in,” Sanders, who graduated from New York University in 2006, said of the recession. “Like, ‘Am I going to be able to feed myself? My parents are losing their jobs. My friends are losing their jobs.’”
Watch the full series here.
In Barely Adults, Paige (played by Amber Avant) is an eager, bright-eyed young black woman trying to score her entry-level dream job as a production assistant in New York’s television industry. But when she lands a gig assisting a top television executive at the fictional Shook TV, she finds herself in a hostile and often nightmarish work environment.
Paige isn’t the only recent graduate dealing with drama in the series. Her best friend, Vanessa, a Latina woman, is struggling with her own potentially life-altering decisions the summer before she heads to medical school. Vanessa and Paige clearly don’t have their futures figured yet. But their mutual friendship sustains them through the tough times that follow.
Over the phone, Sanders shared her inspiration for the main characters’ plights, and debunked the myth of the “lazy millennial” work ethic. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mic: What inspired you to write and create Barely Adults?
Christine Sanders: It was some of my experiences and my friends’ experiences being in New York. You go to college, you get out [and] you’re a little naive about how things work. You [say], “I’m going to work hard. I’m going to impress the right people. This is going to be my path.” Then you get in [a job] and there are things that your parents [or] your school didn’t tell you [about the] political atmospheres of working in these places. Sometimes that’s compounded when you’re a young woman of color and you’re by yourself and no one else looks like you. Like, “How do I navigate this? Who can be trusted? Who can’t?” So I decided to write about it.
Paige’s first job is working for Kendra, who is a top-ranking black executive. But she is also a toxic boss who bullies her.
CS: Sometimes you look at people who are farther along in their career and you wonder, “What [have they] gone through that’s shaped [who they are]?” Kendra is this really tough woman and she starts off meaning well and then her own insecurities pop in. Then there’s this scarcity mentality she sometimes takes on and it’s because she sometimes feels powerless [in her position]. So she takes that [anger] out on her assistant.
I had a similar experience very early in my career, so I could relate to Paige’s woes.
CS: It’s because you were vulnerable. You didn’t have any contacts, you didn’t have any money, and you were just like, “What do I do?”
You’re setting the story in 2008, when the recession happened. Why did you choose to focus on that time period?
CS: Because that was a really hard time for everybody. My career — when I first graduated — it was good, and then the recession started soon after.
In one scene, Paige is in the salon getting her hair straightened because her mother wants her to re-take her graduation photos, having worn her hair “natural” the first time. 2008 was a time when it was a big deal for some black women to wear their hair [this way], and it may be still. Why did you include this scene in the script?
CS: That was intentional. I think there was a big disconnect between maybe the older generation and our generation as to how you can wear your hair in the workplace. Right now my hair is straight, but I’ve definitely worn my hair natural. There’s this internal back and forth you sometimes go through where you’re like, “Am I going to stand out?” and then you have, maybe your parents, asking, “Well, what are you doing?” And it can [also] turn into a thing for young black woman, depending on their work environment.
I noticed Paige’s issues on the show are mostly work-related and not centered on relationships — at least not yet. Was that also intentional?
CS: Well there were boy issues, but because it’s a web series, and [we had] limited budget, we had to cut characters. But if I could move on to additional episodes, then I would definitely introduce more of that, because that’s very much a part of [living] in New York City and dating here and being young and trying to find yourself out in those ways. But I didn’t want her entire world to revolve around whether or not she can find a date. I think in places like New York [or] Los Angeles, where it’s a challenging place to live, you’re whole world can’t revolve around that because you’re trying to feed yourself and pay rent. You have larger issues to worry about.
Also, her life is dedicated to her boss, who really runs her schedule.
CS: And yeah, how many times have you seen that? [Because of work], sometimes you don’t have the space for [relationships].
Paige’s best friend, Vanessa, seems down-to-earth in contrast to [Vanessa’s] older sister, Camila. ... I noticed [Camila] was against [Vanessa] dating her darker-skinned boyfriend. Can you speak more on that dynamic?
CS: That was intentional too, because I wanted to show what’s kind of said behind closed doors because her older sister [Camila], she also adores Paige and thinks that she’s fantastic, and says, “When is she coming over? I can’t wait to see her.” But when it comes to who her sister is dating and who could potentially be part of her family, that conversation is different.
I know that colorism exists in both [black American and Latinx communities] and I wanted to touch on that a little bit and not have that be glossed over.
What else did you want the viewer to take away from Vanessa’s story?
CS: She comes from a long line of doctors, even though her family is still in their previous country. I found that when I would talk to friends who are children of immigrants, they would say, ‘You know my parents were professionals back [home] and they had to take jobs that weren’t [professional] here in the states in order to feed their families, and [explore] what kind of sacrifice goes into that. I wanted to show this young Latina character whose on her way to medical school and her sister, who is also very smart and on this [successful] path.
What do you want people to take away [from the show] about what it means to be a young adult in this era?
CS: We’re working so hard, [we] millennials. Like, every person I know has a nine-to-five and some type of side-hustle and I think for people who are typically “other” and aren’t necessarily getting the opportunities that they want in their nine-to-five, they put a lot of emphasis onto what that side gig is. So I don’t know any lazy millennials. They’re typically pushing to advance themselves and their friends and their communities, especially in a city like New York City or Atlanta, or Chicago, or D.C., or a Los Angeles or Oakland.