The episode aired in 2016 in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and other black men and women killed disproportionately by police. Unlike the vast majority of shows that grappled with police violence that year, “Atlanta” didn’t make the shooting a focal point of the finale. “Did y’all really need all them bullets?” his cousin asks immediately after the shooting. Moments later, Earn approaches a detective to ask if they can check the pockets of his jacket, which the Uber driver had been wearing when he was killed.
Driving away, the men agree that what they observed was “crazy” and even “a little cool.” The incident is never mentioned again, but the message lingers: These young, black men are accustomed to the threat and proximity of police violence. “The truth is that many of us have become just as inured to the stark reality of police-involved shootings,” Joshua Alston wrote for Vulture. The episode “is so effective because it reenacts one in front of our eyes, then shows us what a blithe response to such a thing actually looks like.”
“Atlanta’s” subtle approach hasn’t been the norm for TV shows that have grappled with police violence over the past few decades, with efforts often reduced to “Very Special Episodes” or brief story arcs that gloss over long-standing disparities. But it’s an example of the nuance and creativity that can come out of diverse writers’ rooms that reflect a range of perspectives and experiences.
For decades, studies have shown that pop culture’s prevailing depiction of police officers — as earnest heroes whose use of force is almost always justified — has led to warped views of the criminal justice system.
“One of the reasons why you’ve seen this glorification of police is because of the people telling the stories,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and a professor of sociology and African American studies at UCLA. “People who may be more sensitive to the impact of racial profiling and police brutality on bodies of color usually aren’t in the room to help tell the story. And when they are in the room, generally the stories are different."
The 1992 Los Angeles riots, spurred by the acquittal of four police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King, prompted a number of TV shows (“Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Melrose Place”) to air one-off episodes dealing with various aspects of the unrest. Through those predominantly white lenses, Neil Patrick Harris’s teen doctor tried to understand the destruction as he treated injuries in the emergency room. “Beverly Hills 90210” spun the city’s racial tensions into a feel-good tale that ended with black and white students mingling at a school dance.
Meanwhile, Season 6 of “A Different World” — the “Cosby Show” spinoff following students at the historically black (and fictional) Hillman College — premiered that fall with a two-part episode in which newlyweds Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) and Whitley (Jasmine Guy) try to register students to vote after being caught up in the riots while on their honeymoon. The show’s diverse group of writers and producers, including executive producer Susan Fales-Hill and producer-director Debbie Allen, had felt a responsibility to their viewers to address the riots and what led to them.
“They looked to us to be kind of the town square, where difficult topics were opened up that then caused ripple discussions and, hopefully, some kind of healing,” Fales-Hill recalled in a 2017 Washington Post article.
“A Different World” had tackled inequality before. As protests recently erupted following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Allen shared a scene from a Season 5 episode that “holds just as much weight as it did 28 years ago” in which Ron (Darryl M. Bell) and Dwayne Wayne confront a racist white student from a rival college.
Other ’90s-era sitcoms with diverse writers’ rooms also broached racial profiling in indelible scenes that have gone viral several times over in the decades since. In a Season 5 episode of “Family Matters,” Carl (Reginald VelJohnson) dresses down his Chicago police colleagues for roughing up his son (Darius McCrary), whom they had profiled. In a TV One interview last year, McCrary recalled that the plot point was based on a real-life encounter he’d had with police.
And years before Will (Will Smith) would accompany his aunt and uncle to clean up their old neighborhood following the L.A. riots, “The Fresh Prince” aired a profiling-themed episode in which Will and his cousin, Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), take a borrowed Mercedes for a spin — and end up in jail.
Nearly 30 years after King’s beating caused nationwide outrage, writers’ rooms remain overwhelmingly white. Hunt conducted a 2017 Color of Change study that analyzed the racial makeup and marginalization of black writers in writers’ rooms across genres. Out of 234 shows with episodes considered for the study, two-thirds had no black writers. Of the nine police procedurals included in the study, not one had a black showrunner, and three had no black writers at all.
The study cited “Atlanta” as an example of the compelling stories that can come out of writers’ rooms that include and elevate the voices of people of color. The show’s first season set the tone for the finale’s blink-and-you-missed-it commentary on law enforcement as early as the pilot, in which Earn is arrested following a parking lot skirmish despite not having been involved. He spends a large portion of the subsequent episode awaiting bail alongside mostly black and brown men, some of whom have obvious mental health issues.
But not all of the shows that attempted to weigh in on police violence post-Ferguson were able to do so effectively. Lifetime’s “UnReal” (later picked up by Hulu) was widely criticized for a story line that found Rachel, a white reality show producer played by Shiri Appleby, setting up a confrontation between the police and the black bachelor at the center of “UnReal’s” fictional reality show. The story arc spanned several episodes, but the show mostly focused on how the shooting affected its white protagonist. Because the show’s acclaimed first season had never really incorporated meaningful discussions on race — despite the real-life genre’s long-standing issues — the story at best, seemed forced. At worst, it came across as exploitative.
In April 2015, “New Girl,” Fox’s sitcom about a group of 30-something roommates, took a (slightly) more serious turn in an episode that found Winston (Lamorne Morris) confronting the duality of being a black cop. Morris, who co-wrote the episode, felt compelled to address his character’s occupation following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
He had long heard from viewers who wondered if Morris felt conflicted about portraying a black police officer. And initially, he hadn’t, the actor said in an interview last week. But as he learned more about the history of police brutality in this country, one fan’s inquiry stuck: “How does it feel to play a black cop on TV with a pet cat named Ferguson?”
Winston joined the Los Angeles Police Department during the show’s fourth season; Morris had actually suggested the career move. Growing up in Chicago, he had heard the type of warnings given to most black men and boys to avoid unwarranted attention from police officers: “Keep your head straight,” Morris recalled. “Don’t make any sudden moves.”
But Morris also grew up loving buddy cop movies and thought it would be fun to play a police officer. That changed as more cases of police violence made national headlines — with officers often avoiding prison time or even charges, Morris said. “I didn’t want to continue to play a cop.”
“I felt like, what if people are watching this and disappointed?” Morris recalled. “What if it actually affects people to see the imagery of it, especially with what’s going on — and especially when people weren’t getting charged or convicted?”
Eventually, he talked to creator and showrunner Liz Meriwether, who encouraged him and the show’s writers to address the issue “head on” and “in the most comedic way we could, understanding that it is still a sitcom.” In the episode, in which Winston hides his LAPD affiliation from a love interest who invites him to an anti-police rally, “we had to tread carefully just to make sure the message didn’t get blurred.”
Other sitcoms have navigated a similarly precarious balance between comedy and the harsh realities of racism and inequality.
Hunt served as a consultant on “The Carmichael Show,” which regularly tackled social issues during its three seasons on NBC, and grappled with police violence in its second episode, aptly titled “Protest.” When “Blackish” creator Kenya Barris addressed the topic from the perspective of parents who struggled to talk about police brutality with their kids, he told The Post he had “never been as afraid about an episode of television that I’ve written in my life.”
Both “The Carmichael Show” and “Blackish” were largely praised for these efforts. But NBC canceled “The Carmichael Show” despite critical acclaim and viewer excitement around a potential fourth season. Barris stepped back from “Blackish” following a battle with ABC over “Please, Baby, Please,” an episode confronting the debate around National Football League players protesting during the national anthem.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently said the league was wrong in its handling of those protests, which were intended to peacefully bring attention to the ongoing police violence against black people. Now, as the nation reels from more police killings, TV creators and networks have widely pledged their support for black lives. But Hunt said those statements are “just platitudes if they are not accompanied with Hollywood looking at itself in the mirror."
No genre is more ripe for an overhaul than crime procedurals, he added.
“There’s a huge amount of opportunity to rethink the way we tell police stories — without doing away with the stories or without necessarily doing away with police, but by complicating the premise … so that we get a better sense of what some of the problems are with police work,” Hunt said. “I think to do that appropriately, you need to have people around the table who are more sensitive to those issues.”