Latest TV trend? The black best friend

October 28, 2011

He’s an experienced homicide cop. Married many times, he wants nothing more than to help his younger, naturally gifted partner nail any murderer foolish enough to commit a crime in their city.

His name is Hank Griffin, a character on NBC’s new fairy-tale cop drama “Grimm.”

And he’s a Black Best Friend.

You’ve seen characters like Griffin, played by “Lincoln Heights” alum Russell Hornsby, many times before in film and television.

They’re the folks who offer emotional support, wise, world-weary counsel and a kick in the pants when needed — often administered with a dash of sass and the occasional finger snap.

Loyal. Cool. Exotic. Supremely confident. And eternally useful to the lead character. These are just a few traits that define the Black Best Friend — the newest way to make the cast of a TV show or film look diverse, while ensuring nonwhite characters never really steal the spotlight for long.

The title BBF may sound demeaning, as a flip dismissal of a hardworking actor. But it’s really a cry of frustration, expressing a burning disappointment in the lack of truly well-developed roles for nonwhite characters that has smoldered so long that it has become a bitter humor.

Once upon a time, the lack of substantive roles for characters of color was front-page news.

Back in 1999, when the Big Four TV networks advanced a slate of new fall shows with no minorities in starring roles, advocacy groups like the NAACP complained loudly about a “virtual whitewash” and media outlets peppered executives with tough questions.

This fall, out of 26 new scripted shows, there is not one featuring a person of color as its sole star.Annie Ilonzeh on ABC’s canceled “Charlie’s Angels” reboot and Shelly Conn on Fox’s sci-fi extravaganza “Terra Nova” come the closest, as cast members in an ensemble jockeying for a memorable scene or two.

Many new series have no people of color at all in the core cast, including ABC’s “Pan Am” and CBS’s “A Gifted Man.” At a time when census figures show America is more racially diverse than ever, network TV seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

But there has been little, if any, notice paid to this year’s whitewash — thanks mostly to the BBF.

* * *

I first heard about BBFs in 2007, when the Los Angeles Times delivered a spot-on feature about all the African American actresses stuck in black best friend roles, especially in romantic comedies.

These days, the trend has gone unisex, crossing gender and racial lines. That’s right, Black Best Friends can be guys of any ethnicity; say, Kato in the Green Hornet film or Detective Julio Sanchez on “The Closer.”

What they have in common — besides not being white, of course — is a devotion to helping their white friends achieve, sometime to the detriment of their own circumstance. And despite the BBFs often having an amazing pedigree, with cool jobs, prestigious careers or intriguing personal history, viewers rarely see their lives away from the lead character.

Indeed, there are so many BBFs on new fall shows this year — I count 13 shows, from NBC’s canceled “Playboy Club” to CBS’s hit “2 Broke Girls” and Fox’s “The New Girl” — that you can stick them in their own categories.

Hornsby’s Hank Griffin is a sidekick BBF. He’s a loyal, unquestioning pal backing up lead character Nick Burckhardt (David Guintoli), a police detective who can see fairy-tale characters disguised as average people.

Griffin is a walking plot device; showing up with handy forensic results when their investigation needs to move forward, joking with his buddy about marriage when we need a peek at Nick’s personal life.

Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson is a different kind of black best friend on CBS’s “Person of Interest.” She’s an adversary BBF.

On the surface her Detective Carter is trying to track down star Jim Caviezel’s ex-CIA agent John Reese, but she’s really a sympathetic character who offers help and advice when she first meets him.

Some actors are so good at playing BBFs, they do it twice in the same TV season.

Damon Wayans Jr. was the black best friend on Fox’s “The New Girl,” until ABC decided to keep making “Happy Endings,” a comedy where Wayans’s character is less of a best friend and actually gets some of his own story lines. (Onetime Cartoon Network game show host Lamorne Morris took over the BBF gig on Fox.)

The tragedy of the BBF is that it strands accomplished actors in lesser roles. Hornsby was a magnetic lead presence in ABC Family’s “Lincoln Heights,” playing a Los Angeles cop who chose to move back to his crime-riddled boyhood neighborhood. “2 Broke Girls’ ” Garrett Morris was a member of the classic original cast of “Saturday Night Live.”

Many BBFs exist in a vacuum. You don’t see their relatives, spouses, kids or other friends of color.

In fact, many of these characters could be any ethnicity. Their skin color seems a bit like window dressing, employed to make shows that still reflect an entirely Caucasian worldview look diverse.

* * *

There is hope. Witness the rise of Maya Rudolph’s character Ava on NBC’s “Up All Night.”

Developed as a boss BBF in the original version of the show’s pilot, as a high-powered publicist who employed new mom Christina Applegate as a valued underling, Rudolph got an upgrade after producers revamped the pilot for this fall.

Now Ava’s the star of an Oprah-style daytime show, with Applegate as her executive producer, given more screen time and a status as a near-co-star. (Rudolph, the daughter of the late R&B singer Minnie Riperton and songwriter Richard Rudolph, is biracial.)

So cheer up. There’s an outside chance that an actor of color who works hard and does well can move up the pecking order to nearly become a co-star if they’re just funny and mainstream-looking enough.

And who knows? By treating characters like people rather than plot devices, network TV just might just wind up with better shows in the first place.

Deggans is the St. Petersburg Times TV/media critic.

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