The title alone was enough to set some people on edge.
But the producers of ABC’s Black-ish have spent a lot of time assuring potential viewers that the show isn’t just a collection of jokes about an upper-middle-class family.
Instead, the sitcom about a black, upper-middle-class dad (Anthony Anderson) who fears that his kids are losing connection with their heritage is something different. It’s a meditation on what exactly makes a black family authentically black, and whether that can be lost when kids take advantage of their ability to cross the kind of culture and racial lines their parents never could.
“This show kind of celebrates black more as a cultural thing than a race thing,” said Larry Wilmore, a longtime TV producer and performer who was executive producer of Black-ish before Comedy Central hired him to host its 11:30 p.m. time slot when Stephen Colbert leaves the channel next year.
“We have so many people from so many groups, immigrant groups and different ethnic identities who can relate to this [idea] where their kids, when they assimilate, something is lost in their own culture,” Wilmore said at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in July. “It’s a very universal thing. And we love the idea that Black-ish is our particular way of getting into it.”
Wilmore’s words highlight what is really remarkable about the flood of new network TV shows coming this year that will feature people of color: They have interesting new perspectives along with their diversified casts.
The numbers tell part of the story. There are about a dozen new shows planned for the top broadcast networks this season that star nonwhite characters, have nonwhite characters as major co-stars or have been created by nonwhite producers—a level of ethnic diversity that hasn’t been seen in a long while.
This list includes ABC’s Black-ish, Cristela and Fresh Off the Boat, comedies centered on families that are African American, Latino and Asian American, respectively. There’s also the new show prodouced by Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes, How to Get Away With Murder, starring Oscar nominee Viola Davis.
On other networks, the CW has a powerful new comedy, Jane the Virgin, centered on a Latina who expectedly becomes pregnant when she is accidentally artificially inseminated. And Fox is featuring Davis’ Oscar-winning co-star from The Help, Octavia Spencer, on a show about teens in a ward for the severely ill, called Red Band Society.
ABC also signed a development deal with 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley, slating his ensemble drama American Crime for midseason. Ask ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee why the network has developed so many of its new shows around nonwhite characters and themes, and you’ll get an answer that feels like only part of the explanation.
“You need the people who are telling the stories as well as the people who are playing those stories out, to truly reflect America as it is,” said Lee, who added that shows that lack diversity can often seem “dated” these days, at the TCA event. “[People] want to see voices that reflect the America that they know.”
That may be true, but there are also some bottom-line concerns playing out here. Rhimes, for example, is ABC’s most successful showrunner, with two shows—Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal—that between them averaged more than 20 million viewers a week last TV season.
So when rival network CBS got Thursday Night Football, it only made sense for ABC to hand Thursday nights over to Rhimes’ three shows, which are hugely popular with women. And it just so happens that airing Grey’s, Scandal and Murder together also makes a different kind of history—putting together two network-TV shows starring black women on the same night for the first time in history.
“I think she’s gorgeous and sexy and interesting and fabulous,” Rhimes said about Davis, remembering a TV interview in which the actress said she doubted anyone would put a dark-skinned, older actress like her in a love scene with a white star like Bradley Cooper. “And [the idea that she couldn’t play that kind of role] seemed ridiculous to me.”
Murder was created by Pete Nowalk, a producer at Rhimes’ ShondaLand production company. But when he suggested Davis for their lead character—a tough, sexy, aggressive defense lawyer who moonlights as a college professor and has a taste for tight leather outfits—Rhimes was on board and able to use her muscle as a producer to get the show on the air.
This is the true value of increasing diversity among those who create TV shows: They can offer new characters that the audience has rarely seen on TV before, if ever.
Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez passed up an audition for the Lifetime show Devious Maids, mostly because she didn’t want to play another Latina maid. Instead, she insisted on holding out for a role that would be less stereotypical, and she has urged other Latino stars to take a similar stand.
It’s obvious now that diversity in casting and stories isn't about social justice or seeking special advantage or looking for a grievance to beat up TV executives.
It's about putting vibrant, new characters on TV and cultivating audiences that have always been taken for granted. And unlike other years, when networks offered diverse TV shows that were halfhearted and lame, the two best new comedies this fall are Black-ish and Jane the Virgin.
Now that all these diverse characters are on the air breaking boundaries, network TV’s new task is simple: It just has to keep them on the air.
The title alone was enough to set some people on edge.