Whether it’s because of shifting viewing patterns, desperation to attract larger audiences, or a dawning moral imperative, American network television is finally beginning to look like America. The five broadcast networks unveiled their new shows for the upcoming 2014–15 season last week in New York City to advertisers and the press. And for the first time ever, shows led by actors of colors or with mixed casts rose above feeling like token nods to diversity — that vast and sometimes nebulous term.
While network television has over the years given us The Cosby Show and Ugly Betty, it has more often advanced the idea that white groups of people generally (and begrudgingly) have only one person of color in them — usually on the side as the nerdy Asian, or, as Time’s James Poniewozik noted last week, the black best friend. Even Fox’s Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly said at a press conference in January when talking about diversity, “I’m sorry we even have to have the discussion in 2014.”
The insidious consequence of television’s tokenism has been creating a world in which people of color do not star in their own lives. It wasn’t until Scandal — and its star, Kerry Washington — became a phenomenon last year that both anecdotal and ratings evidence smashed executives over their heads. And the result is the upcoming season’s diverse lineup.
It’s hard to narrow down which particular new shows represent the most dramatic or important shifts. Or which will even last. Since network television is still a system that rolls out dozens of new shows simultaneously in the fall, only to see many of them die horrible, immediate deaths, most of these shows will end up as cannon fodder, no matter how meaningful or symbolic they are.
But let’s get specific anyway. On NBC’s thriller State of Affairs, Alfre Woodard will play the president of the United States, and we learn in the show’s trailer that Katherine Heigl’s character was in a relationship with the president’s now-dead son (his death and her grief appear to help drive the plot). Though The CW’s schedule is still dominated by white-led dramas, its new show Jane the Virgin revolves around three generations of Latina women (it’s loosely based on a Venezuelan telenovela).
CBS’s summer science fiction show Extant stars Halle Berry, who is also an executive producer on it. And in the fall, the procedural-heavy CBS, which has also been the most stable of the five networks in recent years, will present spin-offs of CSI (CSI: Cyber) and NCIS (NCIS: New Orleans). But among CBS’s non-spin-off offerings are Stalker, which stars Asian-American actress Maggie Q, and Scorpion, which is led by British actor Elyes Gabel, who’s of Middle Eastern descent with, as he once put it in an interview, “distant touches of Indian in me.”
What’s particularly fascinating about Stalker and Scorpion is that procedurals have often been an opportunity for networks to showcase diverse casts that have nearly always revolved around a white lead, whether that is Mark Harmon on NCIS or Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order: SVU. And there is plenty of that sort of casting — the kind that we’re already used to — coming in the 2014–15 season as well. CCH Pounder is in the NCIS: New Orleans ensemble, and Dennis Haysbert is on Fox’s Rainn Wilson-led mystery Backstrom, among many other actors of color in supporting roles.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Because that’s not Empire, Fox’s midseason soap created by Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious), which has an entirely black cast led by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. With Sleepy Hollow starring Nicole Beharie, Brooklyn Nine-Nine with Andre Braugher, and Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project already on its schedule, Fox has been more successful in creating shows in which actors of color (and in Kaling’s case, show creators of color) have real and substantive roles. Also next year, Fox will have Seth MacFarlane’s animated midseason series Bordertown, which will make comic fodder of Mexican–U.S. immigration issues (and, one hopes, will be good, and not evil like MacFarlane’s Dads was).
Even before Empire and Bordertown debut, Fox will premiere one of its fall dramas, the tear-jerking Red Band Society, which co-stars Octavia Spencer as a nurse in hospital’s pediatric wing. And in Spencer — along with Halle Berry, Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, and Viola Davis (the star of ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder) — please do notice a subtrend here of black Oscar nominees (Howard for Hustle & Flow, Henson for Benjamin Button, and Davis for The Help) or winners (Spencer for The Help, Berry for Monster’s Ball) who have not been able to flourish as film actors. You could argue that past Oscar nominees Laurence Fishburne of ABC’s Black-ish and Woodard of State of Affairs should also be counted in this subtrend. But both of their careers have always shuttled between film and television in a way that’s appeared seamless to me, or at least less frustrating than watching Davis go from nearly winning Best Actress for The Help to appearing as a side character in the trashy 2013 supernatural teen movie Beautiful Creatures. Television is benefiting from movies’ even more limited vision of American taste.
The subject of Davis brings us to ABC, which, in its new shows, has brought forth the most aggressive slate of all, diversity-wise. On the My Fair Lady adaptation Selfie, which stars Karen Gillan, John Cho plays the Henry Higgins character — an Asian-American man as a romantic lead opposite a white woman. The new comedy Cristela is co-written by Cristela Alonzo, who is Mexican-American and who will also star — it’s based on her family. The new Anthony Anderson–Tracee Ellis Ross–Fishburne-starring Black-ish was written by the African-American writer Kenya Barris, and the show is based on his family. In midseason, ABC will premiere Fresh Off the Boat, which is adapted from the Taiwanese-Chinese-American writer Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same title; the show was created by Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23), who is Iranian-American. Yet not all of ABC’s shows starring or created by people of color are about identity: Soo Hugh, who is Asian-American and has written for Under the Dome among other TV dramas, wrote the pilot for the supernatural midseason show The Whispers, which stars Lily Rabe.
One especially striking image from ABC’s upfront was seeing Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and now the executive producer of the upcoming How to Get Away With Murder (Peter Nowalk, who is white, is that show’s creator), standing on the Lincoln Center stage with John Ridley, the Oscar-winning African-American screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave and the creator of ABC’s multiracial new drama American Crime. It’s rare that show creators are featured at all at an upfront presentation, which traditionally peddle bragging (real and fudged), excruciating jokes, and, most important, the new shows’ trailers. But Rhimes and Ridley being trotted out to advertisers struck me as an important first, and a definitive statement.
Because this great leap forward in network television is largely due to Rhimes’ cultural influence. Reality television on cable has for years reflected the fact that black casts, whether they be on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta (by far the most popular installment of the franchise) or VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop shows and Basketball Wives, attract large, younger audiences who are more likely to watch the shows live (and therefore watch commercials). VH1’s scripted series Hit the Floor, which begins its second season on May 26, and BET’s popular Being Mary Jane and The Game have also reaped the benefit of focusing on black audiences — who also happen to be especially plugged in to social media.
Though Grey’s Anatomy premiered in spring 2005, and quickly became not only massively popular, but a zeitgeist drama, partly due to its diverse, well-loved cast, it was the success of Scandal that finally convinced executives: Create more scripted shows about and for people of color, you silly fools. While it doesn’t work when the show is bad (NBC’s culture-clash sitcom Welcome to the Family was the first series pulled in the fall), the payoff can be huge. As for fourth-place ABC, which has so little to be happy about after this past season, the network has now simply given Rhimes the entirety of Thursday night, traditionally the most lucrative of the week because of movie ads in search of Friday attendance.
Last week, Nielsen posted analysis about what the company calls “heavy TV viewers”: people who watch an average of 705 minutes of television a day. Those people, according to Nielsen, are also “active consumers” who buy clothes and cars. But here’s the kicker: “When looking at different race/ethnicities, the study found that African-Americans are 75% more likely to be heavy television viewers, tuning in for an average of 917 minutes per day,” the Nielsen research states. That’s more than 15 hours of television a day!
During a conference call with reporters last week, Paul Lee, ABC’s entertainment president, talked about the unprecedented diversity in the network’s coming season, particularly with comedies Cristela, Black-ish, and Fresh Off the Boat. He said that “America has changed,” but also that he thinks “it’s the right thing to do.” Surely he’s right about both. But as network television faces unprecedented erosion in these End Times for its ad-based business model, what has clearly become the best bet are broad shows that can try to stare down what Scandal’s Papa Pope would call both the hell and the high water.