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This Week In Black Television: Illusion of Inclusion? The State of Black Television

Television
by Curtis Caesar John
June 29, 2012 1:28 PM
14 Comments
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Lincoln Heights (ABC Family); Family Time (BOUNCE)

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. 

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14 Comments

  • S Essar | July 6, 2012 5:14 PMReply

    I haven't gone through all the comments yet, but it seems that you forgot to mention the following "Black sitcoms" -- BET's "Reed Between the Lines," TVOne's "Love That Girl" and TVLand's "The Soul Man".

  • Curtis Caesar John | July 3, 2012 8:50 AMReply

    Thanks for the comments all!

    @ToExplain. I totally agree that BET is at least leading the effort. If you re-read, for once I didn't bash them or their shows. And I have heard straight from people who've gotten into the network meetings (as it sounds like you may have experienced as well) that whole, "Why don't you try BET argument?", to which they probably think they're being helpful. It's funny, I was just chatting about TV with folks this weekend and my bro was saying how evident it was that Black writers/creatives worked on shows like "Married...With Children," among some others. It shows in the overall great work how much of a difference our added voices make. The same goes for the advertising world...that bootleg Mary J. Blige commercial would've never been made. BTW, I didn't mention 'The Good Wife' because of space, because I praise that show constantly in this column (it's Must See TV for me), but mostly because their main staff has never been comprised of any Black actors.

    @Miles. True words. Though there is space for some of that. We also have to show our support for shows that we say we want, especially those of us who 'know' better. Let's begin to stop keep quality shows our little secret. Which is a good segue to Eshowoman's perfect comment:
    "White audiences are extremely narcissistic and think that whites are the only people capable of tell stories that are universally accepted. Hollywood big wigs seem to lack so little imagination that they cannot imagine blacks being a part of everyday life."
    No, we don't NEED them to tell our stories, and webseries do a good job of showing our diverse talents and experiences, but don't act like we are just a paltry part of your existence...we do exist.

    @Bond Girl. re: Taraji's role on POI, it was evident from the first few episodes to the latter half of the season, and I read it in numerous places, but if you need at least stated proof here's Tambay's article: http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/cbs-boss-says-taraji-p-hensons-person-of-interest-role-marginalized-significant-creative-changes-coming

  • Nikesha | July 2, 2012 5:52 PMReply

    we mistake reality shows with good black tv and let that complacence doom us.

    Every night of the week I can find a reality show where Black people are acting over the top foolish for either fame, fortune or both, when all they usually get are shaken heads and the recurring cultural conflict meme of the lack of good Black roles on television. Of course money is the prime factor in this equation but networks are also to blame themselves. NBC’s fall 2010 line-up saw the network attempt to create a show centered around a Black cast with a White side-kick; Undercovers. Where that show and many other network backed Black shows fail is in the area of focus. Undercovers was supposed to be a spy drama akin to the movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith; without the kill each other plot line. Yet the show was 30 parts spy, 20 parts rom-com, and 50 parts confusion. Confusion doesn’t make for a formula viewers can get behind and networks can sustain.

    Likewise, often times major networks looking for an immediate ratings payoff don’t give shows time to develop and hit their stride. NBC’s fall premier The Playboy Club was cancelled just after three episodes. Of it’s two Black actresses in the show, one of them, Naturi Naughton, wasn’t even recognized with her name in the opening credits. ABC cancelled the revamp of Charlie’s Angels with Annie Ilonzeh after just a few episodes. TNT cancelled Jada Pinkett-Smith’s HawthoRNe. While HawthoRNe may have had a good run on the cable network, the same can’t be said for The Playboy Club and Charlie’s Angels which were barely given time to develop unlike NBC’s now hit comedies Parks & Rec and Community which suffered low ratings for a couple years before the shows finally hit their comedic stride.

    After decades of quality Black programming on readily accessible networks the late 2000′s and now 20-teens have found the composition of television in a state of racial regression. Where at one point you could watch four Black shows in a night on various broadcasting networks you may now only watch four Black shows a week and the majority of them are on the same cable network on the same day.

    http://changecomesslow.com/2012/01/12/scripted-black-television-an-endangered-species/

  • A.J. | July 2, 2012 11:17 AMReply

    Who says that Donald Glover is a non-perspective Black dude?
    Have you talked to him? Maybe he is just trying to do his thing and
    he is no different from any other young Black actor out there. And
    who is Shonda Rhimes to criticize the lack of Black dancers on
    Bunheads? It would be nice if Bunheads was diverse but isn't it set
    in a predominantly white community? If Bunheads was set in an urban
    area, then I would agree with Shonda. And she should be focusing on
    the content on Scandal instead of writing just another trashy
    prime-time soap that has to compete with reality TV. Shonda is in the
    unique position of pitching and getting a show on the air but Scandal
    is a wasted opportunity.

    And the irony is that previously black themed shows aired on network
    TV and in the '90s the major networks got out of the business of
    airing black themed shows, so they went to FOX, UPN, CW's and as we
    know once these networks built themselves up thanks to Black
    viewership they axed these shows. Now you have to have cable in order
    to see these shows: TVLand for Cedric's new show; BET for The Game,
    Let's Stay Together, Between The lines; TBS for the T.P. shows, the as
    yet to be aired Byron Allen sitcom about the Black first family etc.

    Also, I have to disagree: Everybody Hates Chris ran for about 4
    seasons (enough for syndication) and the last season roughly
    coincided with the CW changing it's programming (i.e. focusing on
    Non-Black teen girls/young adults) and canceling Girlfriends (in the
    middle of the season although it was one of its top rated and the
    longest running series on TV), Half and Half, and The Game.

    I also have to disagree about ABC Family believing in Lincoln Heights.
    If ABC Family believed in it, then they had a weird way of showing
    it. I'm surprised Lincoln Heights made it on air to begin with in
    this era. It was a wonderful show with excellent production values
    but in a bizarre move, ABC failed to promote the show itself. I even
    wrote to ABC Family myself to ask why wasn't ABC Family promoting the
    show and the cast on it's sister's network's shows (The View, Regis &
    Kelly, Jimmy Kimmel, GMA etc) like it does for the other shows that
    air on ABC/ABC Family. When some of the cast members finally made it
    to Mo'Nique's talk show on BET which has since been cancelled,
    Mo'Nique even commented herself why was this the first time cast
    members from Lincoln Heights on a talk show???

    And we should support the shows that do have Black actors in
    dimensional roles that have failed to make it Shadow & Act's radar
    (unless I am wrong) like the other person said "The Good Wife" which
    has cast Anika Noni Rose, Nicole Beharie, Renee Elise Goldsberry and
    others in recurring roles, not to mention regular Archie Panjabi. And
    what about the CW's "Hart of Dixie," because although the CW no longer
    runs all Black shows, I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised
    by the nuanced work of veterans Cress Williams, Reginald VelJohnson,
    and newcomer Eisa Davis (The Wire) have done on this show.

    Well, Shadow & Act, I hope that you all do more feature articles like
    the one you'll do on Eureka, about the shows that are on the air
    featuring Black actors/creative teams. It would be also helpful if we
    also make our voice heard and contact these networks (so give us those
    contact numbers and encourage us to contact these networks, and their
    audience response departments) so we can let them know how we feel
    about what's on or what's not on.

  • Miles Ellison | July 1, 2012 11:16 PMReply

    Until black people stop supporting modern blackface theater in the form of the Tyler Perry empire on TBS, the Real Housewives, Love & Hip Hop, Basketball Wives, and Hollywood Wives franchises, there will be no substantial incentive to create entertainment that isn't buffoonery.

  • starry118 | July 3, 2012 11:31 PM

    You can add The Game (BET-version) to that list : P

  • the black police | June 29, 2012 9:06 PMReply

    I loved Lincoln Heights!

  • starry118 | July 3, 2012 11:30 PM

    So did I!

  • Bond girl | June 29, 2012 7:44 PMReply

    How do you know that Taraji's rant led to more screen time? It seems like she always maintained having a substantial role on the show. Thing is, she was screaming about being on the magazine cover, not getting more lines. The result was CBS pulled the cover altogether (I'm sure her co-stars were none too thrilled), rather than have her on TV Guide at all. Seems like the opposite from what she asked for. Considering Jonathan Nolan is hinting that characters may get killed off, I'm not certain the way she went about it was beneficial. I don't know a single person that watches the show for her character specifically. I guess time will tell if she stays and proves her value.

  • squeeky | July 2, 2012 3:43 AM

    I got into PERSON OF INTEREST mainly because Henson was on it---honestly, until I found out she was starring in it,I really wasn't even interested in the show until I found out that she was going to be on it, since I've been a fan of hers for a long time, and I think she's a damn good actress,BTW. And when I first saw the promos for the shows on TV, they barely showed her at all,even though she's one of the main characters! What kind of stupid backwards mess is that?! Anyway, I've learned to enjoy the show and her part is critical
    to the majority of the plotline.

  • eshowoman | June 29, 2012 6:14 PMReply

    Most black people are happy with seeing black people on TV and do not use the power of the black dollar to demand the creation of more complex, varied roles for African Americans. I am really not interested in watching shows that are a poor imitations of the Cosby Show or Good Times or black women screwing, throwing drinks and snatching weaves. White audiences are extremely narcissistic and think that whites are the only people capable of tell stories that are universally accepted. Hollywood big wigs seem to lack so little imagination that they cannot imagine blacks being a part of everyday life. Being a BBF may be a step up from being a maid but it still is not far enough to peak my interest. If Blacks would put their buying power into action and boycott products on all white shows I bet that characters of color will no longer be obscure.

  • White Boy | July 5, 2012 12:11 PM

    I am white and I am narcissistic. However, my narcism has to do with my looks (because I am an attractive man with a good body) and not my perception that people of color can't write, direct, produce, direct, etc. I am not interested in watching black women throwing drinks or snatching weaves either. I am interested in women of any color screwing, but that's because I'm a man. Perhaps as a whole, white audiences think that only whites can tell universally accepted stories. Rule # 1 is to "write what you know". Black people tend to write about black people, and whites tend to write about white people. I know that we don't know much about each other and definitely do not understand each other. I don't understand you any more than you understand me. The difference between us is that you believe that you understand me. I will never pretend to understand you.

  • Bondgirl | June 29, 2012 7:34 PM

    I would agree with every single sentence you wrote. I wish black people would recognize the buying power they had, and leverage that instead.

  • To explain | June 29, 2012 1:47 PMReply

    I feel the diverse casting of the Good Wife is overlooked in your analysis, and would quibble with New Girl's black actors as being the disingenuous BBF. I think he is fully integrated into the show.

    But the larger issue is the lack of shows in general that feature black talent. Whatever you think about BET, it is great that they are doing original programming. What is sad is that the major networks now feel less of an obligation to create programming directed towards us. "Why don't you try BET?" But the goal of Black writers is to diversify the writer's room of every network show. Learn the politics of the room and of the studio and network. Getting the job is not enough. Becoming a showrunner is not always about your talent, but also about your ability to manage different aspects of the process. From there one can learn from the example of Shonda Rhimes, Mara Akil, and others and create shows that get bought. Easier said than done, but it works.

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