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The recent premiere of the third season of Anacostia: The Web Series inspired a handful of articles about the show, with most of them focusing on the interesting fact that it exists. And why shouldn’t they have? By now the program is practically assignment-editor bait: It has the novelty of being a scripted series that’s only available on the Internet; it offers a different take on a part of the city that is often depicted as blighted; it’s made by a lovable, ragtag crew with very little funding. And perhaps most tantalizingly: It’s a soap opera.

What very little of the coverage has noted is that Anacostia: The Web Series, for all of its genre’s lowbrow connotations, happens to be brilliant. And the reasons why have something—and at the same time, nothing—to do with race.

In many ways, Anacostia is a traditional soap opera. The show is rich in back-stabbings, double dealings, and intricate, interlocking plotlines. It’s only a small surprise, then, that As the World Turns veteran Martha Byrne signed on as a guest star this season. But Anacostia is very clearly a show that’s of this moment.

With its lo-fi production values and sometimes-clenched acting, Anacostia doesn’t evoke the heightened theatrics of General Hospital so much as the heightened theatrics of Bravo’s The Real Housewives series and BET’s Tiny & Toya. Shot on location in Anacostia and several spots in Maryland (including Oxon Hill, Columbia, and Upper Marlboro)—and, to judge by some scenes, in the basements and businesses of friends and supporters of the show—it inhabits the same upper middle-class milieu explored in 2011 by much of reality television. (Although being on the Web means Anacostia can be racier than anything on the networks.)

Anthony Anderson, the creator and one of the lead actors, has a busy, playful directing style you wouldn’t see on soaps or reality TV. The camera flirts with film noir, unusual framing, and cutaway shots in ways that—when they’re not simply too much—tend to support the dramatic tension.

More importantly, there’s a distinct sense that in heightening each supremely dramatic twist, these actors are, well, acting. In the Season 3 premiere, a sweaty, greasy business executive—one of the few white actors—chuckles, mouth-breathes, and grotesquely flirts his way through a sequence that ends with him leaving a bar with Byrne’s character. Few actors on the show truly inhabit their characters; for the most part they act like they think people would when being abused or seduced or manipulated (or abusing or seducing or manipulating).

Recall NeNe Leakes, from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, discussing (and then signing!) a ridiculous “friend contract” for co-star Cynthia Bailey. That’s not how real people behave, but watching it—and discussing it with friends—satisfies the same voyeuristic instinct that led earlier TV generations to turn to soaps.

Comparing over-acting reality stars to the unpaid actors of Anacostia is no slight. The show’s grounding in soap-operatic traditions means its drama with a capital D is fun and intriguing, not melodramatic. And it’s in on its own joke—at least to judge by the lines it seems to deliver almost directly to the audience. Everything about Anacostia means to provoke a reaction; it doesn’t lend itself to silent viewing because it follows up every gasp-worthy revelation with a punchline. In Season 1, when extremely desperate housewife Mia (Tamieka Chavis) tells her abusive husband Michael (Maxfield Jones) she’s had enough, he throws mashed potatoes in her face. Then the scene piles on this cold-blooded exchange:

Mia: Michael, you don’t own me.
Michael: I owned you the day I put that ring on your finger. ’Til death do us part, baby, ’til death do us part.
Mia: You know, sometimes I hate you.
Michael: Just “sometimes?” I guess I’m not trying hard enough.
Mia: Why are you even with me?
Michael: I guess everyone has to do their part for charity right? Mine was marrying you.

You can’t watch that sequence without responding verbally (and not just because we’ve already been shown Michael’s eventual and mysterious murder, in the prelude of the show’s first episode). Nor can you watch, it seems, without posting your opinion somewhere. Take a look at comments on the episodes themselves, or on the show’s Facebook page. Of the third season premiere, wherein Anderson’s character Sean, who has reconciled with his supposedly dead lover, opens his house door to find his ex-boyfriend waiting, one commenter writes: “I can’t wait to see what happens with Shawn, Andrew and Julian…I nearly fell out my chair at work I gasped so loud when Shawn opened that door…” Or another: “Great episode! Got me like ..Who? What? Where? and When?” (If the plot sounds overly tangled, be thankful Anacostia’s seasons only last 10 episodes.)

The show’s breathlessness and the responses it spurs are rooted in the deep tradition of black dramatic spectatorship. Pop-culturally, we recognize this in the stereotype of black folks at the movies, but it also reaches back to the morality plays that for decades have made their way across the South. Before actor-auteur Tyler Perry blew up on the silver screen, he was part of a cohort of playmakers traveling across portions of the southern and eastern U.S.—colloquially known as the chitlin’ circuit.

In the 20th century, the chitlin’ circuit was the belt of places where it was safe for black artists to perform, eat, and sleep while bypassing hostile territory. These days, it’s a term with somewhat negative connotations, used to describe areas where there are large-ish black populations willing to spend their money on entertainment that speaks to them—and entertainment where they can talk right back. Audience participation—chatter, laughter, exclamations—in these shows is nigh-mandatory. Often race, religion, or morality dramas, they still have plenty of sex, drugs, and gospel music to go around. And without a vocal audience, there’s practically no immediate way to tell if a play is getting its message across.

Anacostia breaks with the chitlin’ circuit tradition in one important way. It doesn’t have much of a message, or if it does, it’s an anti-message: These black people are just like everyone else, except that crazy shit is happening to them. Just like the largely white daytime soap operas mostly located in the Northeast, Anacostia is not particularly race-conscious. Besides the fact that the main characters are black—and that they live in black neighborhoods and have mostly black friends and colleagues—race is an afterthought.

The show also provides a look at an Anacostia that’s, well, just another neighborhood. Though often underserved and short-shrifted, the neighborhood Anderson films still has many of the amenities and necessities that make it a worthwhile place for young professionals to live. The characters frequent beautiful parks, suburban homes, office buildings, and upscale watering holes with all-black clientele.

That’s what’s really brilliant about Anacostia. Despite its unrelenting drama, the show actually serves to normalize the experience of the black middle class. There’s the couple in which both partners work (even if one has a bit of a drinking problem), the stay-at-home wife (who possibly ordered a hit on her husband), the ex-con who can’t keep a job, and the gay professional (who holds the majority share in a business left to him by his death-faking life partner). All of these archetypes could slip easily into a mainstream soap opera. The characters just happen to be black.

For TV-drama junkies who also care about ethnic representation, that’s maybe the biggest reason to dig this show. When watching dramas that regularly struggle to include nonwhite characters, it’s often hard to separate the rare black character from the fact that he’s, well, black. In Anacostia, a resident need not to be the villainous black businessman with the nice house; he just gets to be the villainous businessman with the nice house, and one can cheer for his demise with impunity.

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield.

Due to a reporting error, the article originally misidentified the character Cynthia Bailey.