Dear HBO: Make a Series About Race

Slate's Tanner Colby has a proposal for the network: Create a show about the chapter of American cultural history between Mad Men and The Wire.

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A scene from The Wire (HBO)

Slate's Tanner Colby has a proposal for the network: Create a show about the chapter of American cultural history between Mad Men and The Wire.

Friday Night Lights and The Wire both offered intelligent, thoughtful portraits of race. For laughs, we've still got the smart and subtle humor of NBC's Community, FX's Louie, and Comedy Central's Key & Peele. But in what is supposedly a new age of groundbreaking, "novelistic" television drama, one of the most dramatic threads of America's cultural history is strangely absent. We did Mad Men, the well-lit, glossy "before" picture of white America, taken just as the civil rights movement was about to upend Madison Avenue's cushy status quo. And we've done The Wire, the gritty "after" shot of urban America in the wake of white flight and the drug war. But we skipped the middle chapter. We haven't done the part about how America stopped being Mad Men and turned into The Wire. That would be the story of the failure of racial integration in the 1970s.

The reason this chapter is missing -- both from television and from our collective pop-culture narrative in general -- is because it's ugly. Most of America's history with race is ugly, but it's ugly in a way that's tailor-made for Hollywood's preferred mode of storytelling: good guys and bad guys. Protagonist and antagonist. Conflict and resolution. The North fought the South and Lincoln freed the slaves -- The End. The noble Negro children of Birmingham stood up to Bull Connor, Martin Luther King went to the mountaintop, and white people learned a lesson -- The End. Is this a reductive way to look at history? Yes. But it can be done; the narrative building blocks are there. The Civil War and the civil rights movement are both more complex than we typically portray them, but both were fundamentally matters of right vs. wrong, and anything that's a matter of right vs. wrong can generally be reduced to good guys and bad guys.

Read Tanner Colby's entire piece at Slate.

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