Uncovering 'Undercovers': Why It Failed
The NBC spy drama starring Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw got plenty of buzz before it aired, but enthusiasm quickly fizzled. Is there a place on network TV for a black cast?
"Even though [acclaimed writer and producer] J.J. Abrams co-created the show, it's obvious he wasn't too heavily involved in the writing because the writing was pretty mediocre," Deggans said. "One of the things you expect from a J.J. Abrams show is the lines will sparkle. … They never really managed that."
Black actors in lead roles on network television will be few and far between when the last episode of Undercovers airs on Dec. 1. Blair Underwood plays President Elias Martinez in the confusing NBC science fiction thriller The Event, but the show has such poor ratings that NBC plans to relaunch it in February in hopes of attracting more viewers.
Not all is lost for the remainder of the 2010-2011 television season, though. Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker will star in Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, a spin-off of the wildly popular CBS police drama. The Chicago Code, formerly known as Ride-Along, will feature Delroy Lindo and is set to premiere on Fox in February. And Damon Wayans Jr. attempts to keep the Wayans legacy alive in Happy Endings, an ABC comedy on post-romantic-relationship friendship. Whether or not these midseason replacements meet the same fate as Undercovers remains to be seen.
The fact that black leads are such a gamble on network TV these days highlights the noticeable shift in programming during the last 25 years. Following the success of NBC's The Cosby Show, Fox was responsible for an influx of black programming during the 1980s and 1990s with shows such as In Living Color, Martin and Living Single.
"[Fox] found a niche that wasn't being served," said Dr. Kristal Brent Zook, author of Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television and associate professor at Hofstra University. "They called it the 'urban market,' which actually included Latinos and young people in general. They saw that this was a market that they could make money off and create a fourth network."
The UPN and the WB, which is now the CW Network, copied the Fox blueprint (think Girlfriends) before they all abandoned most of their black programming in order to appeal to a more mainstream audience. And now it seems as if all the inroads of the past few decades have been for nothing. But Mekeisha Madden Toby, a Los Angeles-based television critic for the Detroit News, said there is hope.
"I definitely see the possibility of dramas with African-American casts or comedies with African-American casts," she said, "but they have to be well-written. If they aren't, people won't invest."
Undercovers' ratings among black viewers might just prove her point. But that raises the $64,000 question: Is the black community concerned about diversity in network television?
"I don't think it's a concern," Madden Toby said. "African Americans are no different than anyone else, and we like to see ourselves on television. ... But I don't think people are losing sleep over it."
Marcus Vanderberg is a contributor to The Root.