TV's Black-Sitcom Problem

Michael Arceneaux, writing for Salon, asks why there aren't any realistic African-American comedies featuring working-class families. He's tired of seeing minorities depicted in the comfy confines of upper-middle-class life.

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A still from Everybody Hates Chris (TV.com); a still from The Cosby Show (IMDb.com via Salon)

In a piece for Salon, Michael Arceneaux asks why there aren't any realistic African-American comedies featuring working-class families. He's tired of seeing minorities depicted in the comfy confines of upper-middle-class life, when there are millions of other people of color who are not as fortunate:

No matter how often the whitewashing of television gets noticed, little seems to change. Late last year, a Los Angeles Times piece headlined “After ‘Cosby,’ less sitcom diversity” focused on the dearth of black families found on broadcast television. The article praised BET’s “Reed Between the Lines” for essentially patterning itself after “The Cosby Show” and attempting to paint a positive portrayal of an upwardly mobile family of color. But while TV certainly needs more color, the few shows that focus on black families, especially the sitcoms, are becoming far too one-note. We see the black upper middle class -- and those heading there -- on TV.  What we don’t see is the black working class.

“Pariah” star Kim Wayans told New York magazine last year that: “You know, it’s interesting to me that so much of the population is living under the poverty line, but when you look at television, you would think that everybody is upper ­middle class or wealthy.” She’s been pitching a show to address that imbalance. “Growing Up Wayans” is described as a modern-day take on her and her now-famous siblings’ childhood. “It’s a really funny show with a lot of heart,” she said, “and it reflects what’s going on today in terms of the difficult economy and how hard it is for families to make ends meet.”

It’s not as though TV hasn’t noticed the economic downturn. It’s just that most of the shows focus on how hard it is to be white in this economy. There’s HBO’s “Hung,” which earned much attention for telling the story of a struggling Detroit teacher and coach who becomes a male escort to make up for his skimpy paycheck. Roseanne is striving to do the same thing she did 20 years ago with her new NBC series, “Downwardly Mobile,” and offer the country a much-needed glimpse into how the other half live and humor themselves.

But where are the working-class sitcoms centered on similar families of a darker hue? It’s odd, considering that even with a lowered unemployment rate at 13.6 percent, blacks are still out of work at a higher rate than other racial and ethnic groups and the country as a whole. Why isn’t this reflected more in appropriate entertainment mediums?

Read Michael Arceneaux's entire essay at Salon.com.

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Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.

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