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.
Will Cable Save Black Shows?
Cable, MTV's Closson says, may be the best bet. Cable still offers a more welcome home to programs with all-black casts than the major networks. Consider the following roundup: two sitcoms from Tyler Perry on TBS, plus the Ice Cube-produced Are We There Yet; BET's wildly popular The Game, Let's Stay Together and Reed Between the Lines; and, for what it's worth, Fox's animated series The Cleveland Show. In 2009, HBO aired the critically acclaimed No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, starring Jill Scott, based on the series of novels by Alexander McCall. (The network has yet to air a second series.)
But being black and writing for a "white" network show doesn't mean being pigeonholed, confined to writing lines for the black crook who gets laid out by the police before the first commercial break. The writers surveyed by The Root insist that they are seated at a place of equality at the writers' table, bringing their perspective to bear on complex plotlines and character development. Says Sherman Barrois, who has also written for ER, Third Watch and The Jamie Foxx Show, "[I've] written over 30 produced scripts for television, and I have never been asked to [write only for a black or minority character]."
Getting a Foot in the Door
Aisha Muharrar, a writer for NBC-TV's Parks and Recreation, understands our nostalgic longing for programs that reflected us in authentic characters and situations that brought laughs without compromising our dignity. "I loved watching The Cosby Show, Living Single, Fresh Prince and Family Matters when I was a kid. But so did all my white friends. They were just good shows we all enjoyed. The answer is to make it the norm again so two shows don't have to be the representation for all of black culture."
Muharrar, like Morgan, is part of a batch of young writers getting their start in television. Television writing is competitive. Patterson offers sound advice for those who wish to try their hand at the profession. "Develop your 'voice,' whether it be comedic or dramatic. Challenge yourself to hone your point of view so that you will be unique in the crowded marketplace."
"Apply to all of the diversity programs," Saji says. "I think every studio has one. I came up through the Cosby program and the Disney program. And hone your skills. All the connections in the world mean nothing if your sample is weak."
"Be prepared to struggle," Closson says. "Have a clear and distinct voice in your writing. Once you do make it, help another black writer break in -- this is the only way we will continue to have a presence in the TV landscape."
Camille Collins is a 2009 recipient of the South Carolina Fiction Prize and is the author of the novel The Exene Chronicles. She also writes for Afro Punk and other publications.