What's Wrong With Inspirational Black TV?

It's OK that Reed Between the Lines is an idealized depiction of black life.

Posted:
 
reedbtl400

BET's new show Reed Between the Lines really wants to be The Cosby Show for a new generation. 

I, for one, am OK with that.

After all, The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, was a groundbreaking series that changed the face of television. It opened the door for other shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters. More important, it showed America another side of the black experience that wasn't commonly seen on TV: an affluent African-American family, the Huxtables, living and loving just like everybody else. The show explored universal themes yet it didn't shy away from embracing black culture. 

While I don't believe Reed Between the Lines will have anywhere near the same impact as The Cosby Show, I think its attempt at universality is admirable. The series, which stars Cosby alum Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Girlfriends' Tracee Ellis Ross, clearly borrows heavily from its predecessor's playbook. Ross plays a psychologist, Carla, married to Warner's Alex, an English professor at NYU. They're raising three kids -- twins Kaci and Keenan (from Carla's previous marriage) and their daughter, Alexis. They live in a two-story house in New York City. Carla has a successful practice, and Alex teaches an online course while homeschooling their youngest child.

Some would argue that Reed Between the Lines -- like The Cosby Show -- doesn't reflect the reality of most African Americans. The charge may be valid but misses the point. The black experience isn't confined to being about the struggle. Our lives are as vast and varied as white America. We exist across a wide economic spectrum -- from the poor house to the White House. Programs like Reed Between the Lines don't show us just the possibility of what we can be; they also show us who we are.

If nothing else, Reed Between the Lines also serves as an antidote to those TV shows that supposedly explore the lives of "real" black people -- The Real Housewives of Wherever, Basketball Wives, Love & Hip Hop, to name a few -- that have become so prevalent on cable networks these days. African-American women on these reality shows are often depicted as gold-digging, jealous harpies who will claw the eyes out of anyone who dares to look at their men. I'd argue that those shows do more harm to our image than any fictional depiction ever did.

In fact, if I'm looking for "real" depictions of black life, I'm more likely to turn to dramas such as HBO's Treme, one of the few shows featuring a mostly black cast. The characters in Treme are inspirational for a different reason: They're willing to soldier on even as they face extreme challenges to rebuilding their lives in post-Katrina New Orleans. Shows like Treme prove that our experiences can be compelling as long as there are networks willing to make the effort to tell those stories. 

While Treme, which is heading into its third season, has had a chance to evolve into must-see TV, Reed Between the Lines is still in its infancy. The show is not perfect -- the writing could be better, and the show could go a little deeper on subject matters. But it has only been on the air for three weeks; it deserves a chance to develop a voice.

Comedies, unlike dramas, tend to have a harder time catching on because humor is so subjective. But given the pedigree of both Warner and Ross, the show has the potential to evolve into a really good series, one that could be a source of inspiration the way The Cosby Show was so many years ago.

Genetta M. Adams is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer and a contributing editor for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

The Root 100 People's Choice Awards  
Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM