The Black And Brown List
With a flurry of new network series set to debut starting this week and continuing well into next year, prime-time TV, that mirror on both the national imagination and the national self-image, is about to reflect more of America than usual.
On the basis of numbers alone, ABC seems to have this season’s hot hand. The network takes point with no fewer than six series with either black and minority themes or lead stars. Black-ish, a new ABC comedy series, promises to push the envelope on depiction of black life in America. Anthony Anderson (Guys With Kids) stars as Andre Johnson, a rising ad executive just promoted to senior vice president at the ad agency he works at. Tracee Ellis Ross co-stars as his wife, a successful doctor. They enjoy the trappings of success — kids, a sumptuous home, upscale neighborhood — even as they navigate the conflicting challenges of cultural identity and assimilation as African Americans in the 21st century. The show, executive produced by Anderson and Laurence Fishburne, debuts Sept. 24.
ABC will also present How to Get Away With Murder, the latest from the hit machine of Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. In the series created by Peter Nowalk and exec-produced by Rhimes, Oscar nominee Viola Davis (The Help) stars as a college professor who becomes embroiled in murder cases, with her students, in unexpected ways. The show bows on Thursday, Sept. 25, in scheduling that will effectively make Thursday Shonda Rhimes Night on ABC (Murder will follow Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, broadcast earlier the same night).
ABC’s American Crime, an ensemble drama to be written, produced and directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), will dig deep into the lives of people caught up in in a high-profile trial with racial overtones after an incident in Modesto, Calif., upends their lives. It’s about as topical a TV show as you could ask for in a nation still grappling with the racial trauma of Ferguson, Mo.
Comedian Kevin Hart is developing scripts for a semi-autobiographical comedy series for the network. Romany Malco (Weeds) is slated to portray Hart’s counterpart in the show based loosely on Hart’s own life. And stand-up comedian and producer Cristela Alonzo stars in Cristela, a comedy series on a Mexican-American woman interning at a powerful law firm, despite the misgivings of her family.
Other networks are part of this emerging panorama. Alfre Woodard is the president of the United States in NBC’s State of Affairs, the Alexi Hawley drama that also stars Katherine Heigl, as a CIA analyst tasked with keeping the president abreast of what’s hot and not around the world. The series debuts on the Peacock Network on Nov. 17.
Craig Robinson, a mainstay of The Office, will star in Mr. Robinson, an NBC comedy, portraying a music teacher who rides herd over students at a middle school.
Michael Che (formerly with The Daily Show With Jon Stewart was just tapped to join “Weekend Update” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, the first black co-anchor for the popular SNL segment since the show’s 1975 debut. The show starts its 40th season on Sept. 27.
And TV comedy veteran Bill Cosby is plotting a return to TV with a new prime-time NBC comedy, which the network described for The Hollywood Reporter as “a classic, big, extended family sitcom.” Cosby is to star as the family patriarch and the father of three grown daughters with children — the template for what sounds like a more mature version of The Cosby Show, the hit NBC program that helped revitalize the sitcom genre in the 1980’s. Pending the right scripts, the show could be up and running by the summer or fall of 2015, THR reported.
Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) stars as a hardcase nurse presiding over a ward of precocious teenage patients in a Los Angeles hospital. Fox’s Red Band Society, the dark dramedy adaptation of a Spanish TV series, starts its run on Wednesday, Sept. 17.
Taraji P. Henson (Person of interest), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) will headline Empire, a family drama on the rise of a hip-hop mogul. The pedigree is solid: Created by Lee Daniels (director of The Butler), the Fox series debuts in the spring of 2015, with Daniels, Danny Strong (Game Change, The Butler) and Brian Grazer (Get On Up) at the helm.
And even that relatively monochromatic world of late-night is about to get a makeover. Starting in January, Larry Wilmore, once the “Senior Black Correspondent” for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, helms his own Comedy Central show. The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore will go head-to-head with The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and CBS’ Late Show soon to be reconfigured under Stephen Colbert.
Add these to the mix of strong continuing lead and supporting roles for minorities in proven hits like CBS’s Extant, NBC’s The Blacklist and Chicago Fire, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and The Mindy Project, and new shows like CBS’ latest, New Orleans-based NCIS spinoff (debuting Sept. 23).
For one veteran television watcher, it all means progress in more than baby steps, maybe. “The progress has been on a lazy upward slope,” said Robert J. Thompson, Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. “It’s certainly better than it was in the beginning — when we had Amos & Andy and Beulah — and certainly better than it was when the NAACP made its first report on the media in 1999.”
Thompson referred to the landmark report documenting the great divide between TV networks and the increasingly diverse American demographic they served. That report led to a watershed agreement with networks to advance prospects for minorities in writing, producing and acting in network television.
“After that report, the immediate impact was that networks hired vice presidents of diversity,” said Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “What else did they do? They introduced a black girlfriend to Ross on Friends.”
“Look at some of the most successful shows — Roots, The Cosby Show … This idea that diverse programming is somehow going out on a limb is not rational. But it isn’t a rational business, so that allows our superstitions to prevail. The entertainment business can be amenable to our old prejudices.”
This time may be different. Despite the entertainment industry being the risk-averse captive of the first law of entertainment thermodynamics — Follow What’s Worked Before — the rise of Rhimes, Ridley, Hart, Anderson, Fishburne and others in front of the camera and behind it (like Halle Berry, who executive-produces Extant) are, for Thompson, a welcome break with the past.
“The key was always that, if you’re going to solve the problem of monolithically similar programming, you need to diversify the people running the industry,” he said. “You’ve got to have diversity in the executive rooms. The 2014-15 season is shaping up to be a watershed year. I don’t know why it’s taken so long.”
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