With all the updates to the Fall TV season and the long reviews of summertime shows, my recent columns have all been comprised mostly of lists. This week I change things up a bit by delving into a repeated topic of discussion in this S&A feature: What is Black television? Should Black television shows be defined the same as Black movies? And why aren’t there more shows by Black creators with a mostly Black cast on the air, obviously excluding S&A’s favorite creator, who we’ll just call T.P.
The questions above gained higher relevancy with last week’s premiere of Family Time, BOUNCE Television’s first original show. Starring sitcom vet Omar Gooding (Smart Guy, Barbershop) along with other TV mainstays like Richard Gant and movie actor Paula Jai Parker, the show created by Bentley Kyle Evans (Martin, The Jamie Foxx Show) is about a family who wins the lottery and uses the money to move out of the ‘hood and into the suburbs. I got a chance to watch the pilot, and the show is, well just okay.
No matter my or your opinion of Family Time, it remains only one of only seven scripted original shows on the air that is created by and starring people of African descent, the others being BET’s The Game and Let’s Stay Together, VH1’s Single Ladies and TBS’ Are We There Yet?, Meet The Browns and For Better or Worse (the latter two being produced by T.P. I excluded House of Payne as it ends this year). The bulk of these are sitcoms and are very much made in the classic sense too as none of them are groundbreaking or push the envelope, which can still allow for good entertainment but nothing that stands out.
Most every other show on the air with Black talent follows the usually disingenuous BBF/Black Best Friend model as seen on sitcoms like New Girl and Mike & Molly and dramas like Revenge. Surprisingly, at least Mike & Molly, which is set in Chicago, has two Black actors, Reno Wilson and Nyambi Nyambi ,along with Holly Robinson-Peete in a recurring role. On the flipside, there are shows like Community (which is only renewed for 13 episodes come this Fall) and The Closer (which unfortunately ends in August) with Black talent that have more genuine roles as the Black characters are centrally involved in the plot and seldom shy away from having those men & women take the spotlight in multiple episodes and not in the stereotypical ‘let’s focus on the Black character for one episode out of twenty-four’ way.
So then what exactly does make a show a ‘Black’ show? There’s never been a consensus from the film world that a Black movie is definitely one that both has Black talent, themes or non-monolithic perspectives, and has to be made by Black folks. Quite the opposite as it’s like anything with a majority Black cast is considered a Black movie – and the same seems to apply to Black television. Despite multiple strides against a locked way of thinking, Black audiences, like people of other races and creeds, just want to see themselves on screen and will watch whether it’s Amos & Andy in the 1950’s, Gimme A Break in the 1980’s or House Of Payne in 2012.
So does that excuse creators of network shows, none of which have any Black shows (created by Black folks or otherwise) on the air, to insert random Black characters into their casts? It comes off more as being for their own benefits, to appear as liberal and inclusive, but literally comes off more as patronizing. The actors within do get work and are adding to their resume, but not getting an opportunity to be a potent part of the show. Which is why I personally did not understand the Black community rants against Lena Dunham’s lack of inclusion on her HBO show Girls. Why would you want someone who’s both unfamiliar with the Black perspective and uninterested in telling those stories to do the requisite stick-in-the-negro on her show; it’s a disingenuous position to take and I’m sad she inserted non-color perspective Black dude Donald Glover into that mess. Shonda Rhimes’ tweet critique of no Black girls (or boys too I suppose) on Bunheads made more sense since ballet is a world in which young Black children participate whereas the upper-middle class world of the Village and Williamsburg sections of New York represented in Girls aren’t necessarily.
Meanwhile, at least cable network series lead the effort toward making their Black characters germane to the focus of the show, and have started to remove them as authority figureheads or straight up tokens to having their actions determining the outcome of things. Regardless of whether you make or may not like Psych, which airs on the USA Network, Dule Hill is undoubtedly the co-star of the show and it would not be as strong of a program without him – his character Gus and James Roday’s Shawn are a bonafide team. Though a bit neutered on the first season of Suits, also on USA, in season two Gina Torres has been tough, truly authoritative, and still very feminine (let’s not be coy, she’s sexy) as Jessica Pearson, managing partner of the Pearson/Hardman law firm who is now fighting to stay in power. In that fight, she’s shown cunningness, humility and great acting chops.
So why aren’t there more Black shows by actual Black creators on the air - ones of substance? My personal theory is because we don’t support the ones that existed. Everybody Hates Chris has become a sort of classic, but it got knocked around on the schedule so much it got cancelled to soon. Soul Food did well on Showtime, but although it was different from the movie version it had a familiar name and feel. Lincoln Heights stayed on the air mainly because the ABC Family network believed in it and executive producer/showrunner Kathleen McGhee-Anderson championed the show. But past the first few episodes it seldom received Black media or ratings/advertising support, and that was one of the better shows on the airwaves. As McGhee-Anderson was a consulting producer on Soul Food too, I suppose it comes straight from sensibilities. The sitcoms that now exist are pretty lackluster, with only The Game really providing any insight into the modern psyche of a segment (celebrities) of the Black American community. I’m of the argument that there’s room for T.P.’s brand of shows as well, but when that aesthetic is the overwhelming majority, the audience is left wanting. Badly.
There’s no significant answers here, really just more questions, but we do need to change our perspectives on what we want to see and realize that getting handed crumbs to look at isn’t acceptable. I didn’t agree with her at first, but Taraji P. Henson’s furor at getting denied placement in the marketing for her CBS show Person Of Interest led to her not only getting a boost in her role on the show but many people’s perspectives on the illusion of inclusion. Though Henson, being an Academy Award nominated actress has a bigger profile than most actors on television, I wonder what would happen if other Black sitcom and drama actors actually spoke up for themselves?
Next week I’ll return to reviews and focus (finally – though I know I promised before) on Eureka, a show with a significant Black cast, which sadly has its series finale in a few weeks.