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Series / Amen

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"Turn on the light from Heaven, Lord,
Shine on me, shine on me..."

A pleasant, somewhat forgotten 1980s sitcom on NBC, one of several of the era to feature all-black casts. It lasted from September, 1986 to May, 1991 for total of 110 episodes across five seasons. Set in an urban Philadelphia church, it starred Sherman Hemsley as Deacon Ernest Frye, an attorney with a considerably lacking sense of ethics, and Clifton Davis as the Rev. Reuben Gregory, a young, naive and idealistic minister. Another cast member was Anna Maria Horsford as Frye's 30-something spinster daughter, Thelma.

Despite the church setting, many of the plots were standard sitcom fare, with little or nothing to do with the show’s ecclesiastical context. Two of the recurring themes of the show were Deacon Frye’s often harebrained schemes to raise money for the church, and Thelma’s initially unrequited love for the reverend. (They eventually marry and, in the final episode, have a baby.)

This show provides examples of:

  • 24-Hour Party People: The 15 or so people that we've never seen before who attend Thelma's bridal shower.
  • Aesop Amnesia: Thelma and Deacon Frye are the most egregious offenders.
  • Allegedly Dateless: Thelma, who despite constantly complaining about her lack of a social life, actually dates a decent amount of men, nearly marrying one—and that's one of several who wanted to make her his wife—before getting together with Reverend Gregory.
  • All Take and No Give: Frye’s fund-raising schemes are usually more slanted towards lining his own pocket than the church’s coffers.
  • Amen break: not an exact example, but the theme song is a spoken-word version of the source music for the Amen break. The theme song is probably what's most remembered about the show, besides Sherman Hemsley post-The Jeffersons.
  • Amoral Attorney: Attorney Frye never met a loophole, scheme or conniving tactic he didn’t like.
  • Armed Farces: A six-episode arc in the fourth season has Thelma joining the Army, with predictable results, despite initially presenting herself as a very competent would-be soldier.
    • Thelma was a very competent soldier—she made it through basic training—and most likely would have had a decent military career (and a man who didn't need more time to marry her) if marrying the reverend wasn't her all-consuming life's goal.
  • Babies Ever After: Thelma gives birth in the series finale.
  • Badass Preacher: In the first episode, Reuben admits to having been arrested at an anti-apartheid protest, is arrested a few episodes later for sheltering illegal immigrants—and makes the other inmates respect him by refusing to be intimidated, helps the police round up members of a street gang terrorizing the neighborhood, and in response to a death threat sent by the gang, declares, "If this is going to be my last sermon, it's going to be a good one", then successfully appeals to the gang members to change their ways.
  • Bears Are Bad News: In one episode, Frye injures his foot while on a hiking retreat. While he's resting it in his cabin, a bear shows up and starts licking him (or more specifically, his injured foot) for no apparent reason until Thelma chases it out.
  • Celebrity Star: MC Hammer in "Three Men And A Hammer", playing both himself and the flamboyant Reverend Pressure, encouraging Clarence not to drop out of school.
  • Child Prodigy: Reverend Johnny
  • Christmas Episode: several during the series run.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Inga, Cassieta, Jeanette, and Lorenzo (the choir director)
  • Citizenship Marriage: Deacon Frye fakes a marriage to Inga so she could fool an INS agent and stay in the country. The INS agent was really a messenger from her attorney's office; he was bringing a letter telling Inga that she received a six-month extension on her visa.
  • Class Reunion: Thelma
  • Cock Fight: Reuben and a doctor Thelma is dating engage in this. When the man introduces himself as "Dr, etc.", Reuben does so as well (like many ministers, he has a doctorate in divinity). They then chat about how both of their professions require them to make house calls:
    Doctor: "Of course, in my case, they call me to save someone's life."
    Reuben: "And when they call me, it's because you didn't."
  • Cousin Oliver: Chris and Jeanette (though she shows up early in the show's run, rather than late, like most examples of this trope). Clarence also, even though he's much older than most versions of this trope.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Reuben could be like this regarding Thelma—even before they officially began dating.
    • The male half of a couple Reuben is counseling is like this too, taking anything and everything any other man says to his wife as an advance—Ernie literally cannot say "Hello" or "Good morning" to the woman without the man wanting to fight him. He's completely oblivious to the fact that she's incredibly unattractive and no man wants her, while despite her own shrewish personality, she's devoted to him.
  • Creator Provincialism: The series is set in Philadelphia, Sherman Helmsley's hometown.
  • Dead Man Honking: When the gang tries to break into a piano store to return one that was stolen, they appoint the elderly Rolly as the lookout for the police. When the cops bust them anyway, they realize that Rolly has fallen asleep when they hear the sound of the car horn.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Rolly (Jester Hairston) is a textbook example. Many of the funniest lines are his pithy, sarcastic asides and reactions.
  • December–December Romance: Rolly and Leola
  • Disguised in Drag: Reuben and Ernie (mustache and all) dress as very unconvincing female recruits in order to sneak into Thelma's Army camp.
  • Estranged Soap Family: Neither Thelma's grandfather nor Reuben's mother show up at either of the couple's weddings, despite Ernie reconciling with the former and explicitly inviting him, and the latter appearing only one episode prior during which she tried to take over the wedding planning.
  • Expy: Clarence to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—a streetwise, urban kid being taken under the wing of wealthy, stodgy relatives (or friends in Clarence's case). It's unlikely a coincidence that he was brought on the show the same year that Prince premiered.
  • Fake Band: Ernie and the Sublimes
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Ernie. Neither Cassietta, Amelia, or Rolly ever seem to have anything nice to say about him, but they all hang out quite regularly.
  • Funny Background Event: One of the performances during the telethon is a duet of "Endless Love" between Thelma and Reuben. When he sings, the screen behind him shows the amount of donations rising—$800, $900, etc. But when she sings, the amount drops to the point that he has to wrestle away the microphone lest they lose everything.
    • In another episode, as the panicking group is trapped in Thelma and Reuben's apartment during a fire, Rolly can be seen reading the paper as calmly and leisurely as if this were a lazy Sunday afternoon instead of a life and death situation.
  • The Ghost: Deacon Frye lost his wife when Thelma was a young girl. She is often mentioned, but glimpsed only once in a flashback. We never see Chris' mother either, even though she must surely exist—Thelma mentions needing to have a talk with her after yet another rude and intrusive question from him.
  • Give Me a Sign: As an uncertain Thelma prepares for her wedding, she asks her deceased mother for a sign that she shouldn't marry her intended. Receiving none, she reluctantly steps out of the room to prepare to walk down the aisle. As she closes the door, several pictures fall off the wall. Hearing this, she rushes back, asking "Is that you, Mama? Okay, I got it!", then calls her fiancé in to gently tell him that she doesn't love him the way he deserves. Following his departure, she despondently asks for another sign that she didn't just make a huge mistake. At this point, the Reverend she's been in love with from the first episode walks in to ask if she's okay. Cue a smug Aside Glance from her as she realizes that she definitely made the right decision. note 
  • Gossipy Hens: The Hettabrink Sisters, hands down. Amelia became less of one after Cassieta left the show. Most of the church ladies, in particular, the mother of neighbor boy Chris, making him an example of this too.
  • Grand Finale: The church raises enough money to stay open, and Thelma and Reverend Gregory have their baby boy.
  • Hey, Let's Put on a Show: The "talent show" episodes in the third and fourth season, plus the fund-raising telethon in the series' two-part finale.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Thelma. As mentioned in the Funny Background Event entry above; her performance during the "Endless Love" duet goes so poorly that the telethon loses money.
  • Hot for Preacher/Sexy Priest: Reverend Gregory. It's not constant, but Thelma isn't the only woman who swoons over him.
  • Identical Grandson: Anna Maria Horsford (Thelma) plays her mother in a flashback that depicts how she and Ernie met.
  • Insatiable Newlyweds: Thelma and Reverend Gregory.
  • Jerkass: Deacon Frye is a vain, amoral, conniving, self-serving Ambulance Chaser, with few, if any, saving graces. Somehow, he manages to maintain his church office and enjoy the tolerance and forgiveness of his fellow parishioners.
    • This is mainly because Deacon Frye's grandfather founded the church. Otherwise, he would have been kicked out a long time ago.
    • And because he also pulls a decent amount of Jerk with a Heart of Gold moments.
  • Jesus Taboo: Averted. Even though the show lacked serious religious overtones, Jesus/God was mentioned quite a bit by various characters.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Thelma as it relates to her cooking skills.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The opening credits are Ernest pulling into the parking lot and walking through the church sanctuary. In the pilot episode, the action picks up with him continuing his walk into the church offices. Then, in the finale, the choir breaks into the theme song when celebrating the birth of Thelma's baby and the church raising the money to stay open.
  • Lethal Chef: Again, Thelma. One particularly memorable episode has her adding way too much yeast to a bread recipe, resulting in a mass which engulfs the entire kitchen.
  • May–December Romance: Deacon Frye is considerably older than many of his love interests, especially Halle Berry, who prompted Thelma to exclaim, "No wonder he's acting like a teenager—he's DATING ONE!"
  • Mood-Swinger: Everyone notes Thelma's erratic behavior as hers and Reuben's anniversary approaches. Her father notes to friends Amelia and Rolly that her mother was the same way as their first anniversary came—"Lorraine was laughing and giggling one​ minute and throwing pots and pans at me the next. But at least she had a good excuse. She was pregnant." Their eyes widen as they realize that he may have just pinpointed the reason for Thelma's conduct. Sure enough, it turns out she's expecting.
  • My Beloved Smother: Reuben's mother, who constantly takes passive-aggressive digs at Thelma and tries to make her feel like she's not good enough for him. Not until Thelma and Reuben finally tell her off does she admit that her son is the only family she has left and that she was afraid of losing him.
    • Ernie counts too, for the way he tends to treat Thelma like a child, to the point where she and Reuben have to throw him out of their honeymoon suite. He then spends their honeymoon calling her every day, bawling his eyes out for an hour, constantly shows up at their apartment uninvited and unannounced, and is visibly pleased when a fire forces them to move in with him.
  • Nosy Neighbor: A Running Gag had Chris frequently coming over to the house and asking questions or saying things that were incredibly inappropriate both because of his age and because they were none of his business, resulting in him being literally thrown out of the house by whoever he had offended.
  • Oblivious to Love: The reverend, at least in early episodes, is oblivious to Thelma’s flirting.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Reuben's mother, who constantly takes passive-aggressive digs at Thelma and tries to make her feel like she's not good enough for him. Not until Thelma and Reuben finally tell her off does she admit that her son is the only family she has left and that she was afraid of losing him.
    • It appears Ernie's own father-in-law was this to him, disowning his daughter when she married him. 30-something years later, Ernie is still angry over how heartbroken his wife was by this.
  • On One Condition: An elderly parishioner dies and leaves her successful restaurant to the church. They can use some of the profits for church projects, if they keep the restaurant open. Hilarity Ensues
  • Panicky Expectant Father: Reverend Gregory
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: Santa Claus of all people does this to Reuben's mother when she asks him if he remembers what she asked him for when she was a little girl.
    "I'm afraid I don't. But that was an awfully long, long time ago."
    • The Fridge Brilliance of this moment is that this is likely his way of punishing her for her own tendency to display this trope to her daughter-in-law Thelma.
  • Preacher Man: Actor Clifton Davis is, in real life, also an ordained minister.
    • As well as Child Prodigy Reverend Johnny (now in his early 30's) who has his own mega church outside of Chicago.
    • So is MC Hammer, who appeared as a flamboyant preacher and as himself.
  • Precision F-Strike: Reuben calls Ernie a "jackass" after learning that he'd been cozying up to his dying father-in-law so that the man would leave him all his money. As far as curse words go, it's pretty mild, but for a show like this—and coming from a minister, no less—it may as well have been the F word.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Thelma to Ernie, Ruben, and Ruben's best friend. In another episode, after Ernie loses an election, he gives one to the core cast. Thelma also gives a blistering one to her father and grandfather regarding their feuding, capping it off with this:
    "I didn't know Mama very well, but I'm certain of one thing. She would be as disgusted with you two as I am!"
  • Runaway Bride: Thelma almost does this to her would-be groom before finally sitting him down and gently telling him that she doesn't love him the way he deserves to be loved. Similarly, Reuben hem-haws on proposing to Thelma, then faints during their (first) wedding, basically a physical manifestation of his fears about marriage. She then basically pulls this trope again by storming out on him and refusing to accept his apologies.
    • Reuben's backstory includes a fiancée who did this to him, thus explaining his reluctance to propose to Thelma. And earlier in the series, Rolly nearly does this to his fiancée after some Out-of-Context Eavesdropping that makes it sound as though she's bad-mouthing him.
  • Santa Ambiguity: In the Christmas Episode "Miracle on 134th Street", Frye must defend a department-store Santa against an assault charge—he punched a man who was ridiculing him. Despite initially thinking that the man is bonkers, Frye comes to believe that he is in fact, truly Santa Claus and decides to use this as his defense. Sure enough, his identity is proven in court after reading a letter that the prosecutor wrote to him as a young boy. At the end of the episode, Frye receives a train set that he had always wanted, apparently as a reward for being "good".
  • Sassy Black Woman: The Hettabrink Sisters; Thelma.
  • Screaming Birth: Thelma
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Rollie, to the max.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: A very rich parishioner offers the church a huge amount of money if Reverend Gregory finds him a woman to marry. Of course he refuses to help and Deacon Frye gladly offers up Thelma.
  • Second Love: Thelma to Reuben given his fiancée ditching him on their wedding day.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Thelma is depicted as somewhat of a whiny, frumpy, plain Jane, but when she makes the effort to dress and groom nicely, she is a rather attractive lady.
  • Single Stanza Song: The show's theme song.
    "Turn on the light from Heaven, Lord! Shine on me! Shine on me!..."
  • Status Quo Is God: Thelma learns to cook during her stint in the Army. But after a disastrous attempt at baking bread— she prepared for 600 rather than 6, she goes back to being a Lethal Chef.
    • She also moves into Reuben's apartment after they marry, but a fire forces them to move back in with Ernie.
  • Teen Pregnancy: A young member of the choir is pregnant and Reverend Gregory tries to kick her out. Surprisingly, Deacon Frye defends her after he delivers her baby. He also convinces the baby's father to marry her in a later episode.
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted. Like many clergymen, Reuben serves as a counselor and is often seen advising individuals and couples and sees a shrink himself to help him get over his marital fears.
    • Ernie sees one to get over his fear of snakes.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Thelma took in a foster child named Jeanette, and she appeared in about 4 episodes. Then she was gone with no mention of what happened to her.
  • What If?: An episode in which Rolly, Reuben, and Ernie try to convince a young man to attend college has them all imagining scenarios if they themselves hadn't gone—Reuben's an incompetent waiter while Rolly and Ernie are equally hapless at their respective jobs of cab driver and handyman.
  • Where da White Women At?: Inverted—It's the Swedish Inga who takes a liking to Frye, though the racial difference is never mentioned.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The abovementioned episode "Miracle On 134th Street" is obviously based on Miracle on 34th Street
    • The final minutes of "Unforgettable" are clearly based on Casablanca, with Ernie urging Claire to return to ex-boyfriend.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Deacon Frye has a fear of snakes and overcomes it by being locked in a room with one that's in a tank— until it escapes and wraps itself around him!
  • You Are Fat: Ernie bluntly tells the minister this in the pilot episode, equally bluntly telling him that he needs to lose weight —"People are complaining that you're blocking their view of the choir!"—, prompting the man to angrily quit.