The Shonda Rhimes Effect?
The bad news: There are fewer black shows on TV. The good news: Black TV writers are quietly making their way on mainstream network shows. Here are their stories.
Multiracial Casts: Friend or Foe to Black Writers?
Like Rhimes, many African-American television writers working today are not doing it on black shows. Over the past decade, major networks have moved away from producing black-centered television shows like The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, My Wife and Kids and Everybody Hates Chris. Instead, the airwaves are flooded with comedies and dramas like The Office, Grey's Anatomy and Treme, shows that feature black actors within a multiracial ensemble cast -- casts helmed by white leads. This shift can be traced to the dissolution of networks, such as UPN and the WB, that showcased black talent.
Observes Maisha Closson, a writer for MTV's controversial Skins, "We lost a lot of shows and jobs for black folks. Unfortunately, executives don't believe that shows cast with primarily black actors can find a home on network TV."
Morgan, on the other hand, sees opportunities in writing for mainstream shows. "A good role is a good role, no matter what," she says. "If the character happens to be on a predominantly black show or a predominantly white show, I don't think it matters. What matters is whether or not it's a role that can showcase talent."
Jacque Edmonds Cofer, a writer for BET's Let's Stay Together and Reed Between the Lines, sees the positive aspects of multiethnic casts but also cautions against complacency on the part of producers and television execs. "The multiethnic casts are a good step toward adequate representation of all ethnicities on TV," she says. "On Treme and Grey's, they have substantial story lines and well-rounded characters. However, multiethnic casting on shows with white leads shouldn't be used as an excuse by networks for not airing shows with majority black or Latino casts, especially when shows like The Game and George Lopez prove that an eager audience and advertisers are waiting for them."
And multiracial casts don't always mean equitable story lines for minority characters. Programs such as Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries have been criticized for using black and Asian actors as "sight gags," or limiting their presence to stereotypically "dark" roles. In the blog PopWatch for EW.com, Youyoung Lee describes the Asian and black sidekicks on Gossip Girl as "practically mute, ostentatiously dressed and subservient."
David Mainiero of the Dartmouth Independent concurs, explaining that Gossip Girl paints its minority characters "in [an] ancillary, subservient light." Of the WB's Vampire Diaries, Price Peterson, a blogger for TV.com, writes, "Having all the witches be African American is definitely not weird. And having them all perform servitude to rich Southern white people -- definitely not questionable."