A ritual dance performed during fall TV seasons of yore involved parsing the new dramas and comedies for any examples of diversity in casting — or, more often, noting the profound lack of it — and then expressing predictable outrage at the networks’ shortcomings in that area.
Press releases would go out from watchdog groups representing minorities asking why census numbers never seemed to translate to pilot season; the networks would officially share that concern, offering whatever response they had come up with this time around — including token casting of minorities in auxiliary “best friend,” “junior partner” and “precinct captain” roles, sometimes even offering a minority “president of the United States” as a fantasy before that became a reality.
Over the past couple of years, the industry got distracted by the much bigger and more dire story of television’s future as a business model — how would it be watched, by whom, on what devices, with ratings success or failure measured by what sort of new metrics?
In this chaos, while no one was rattling the networks’ cages, a beautiful thing happened: For the first time in recent memory, there’s a noticeable breakthrough in the characters and cultures that make up this fall’s schedule. While they are not nearly as diverse as the households that might tune in, some of the new shows have a remarkably casual and more entertaining approach to the self-conscious burden that comes with telling “minority” stories. From a critical standpoint, these shows are doing a better job by choosing what one might call a post-racial approach.
ABC’s new comedy “Black-ish,” premiering Wednesday night after the sixth-season return of “Modern Family,” will get the most scrutiny from viewers who are curious about its comedic take on the lives of a well-off African American family. Premise-wise, “Black-ish” is somewhat thin: Co-creator/producer Anthony Anderson stars as Andre, a successful advertising executive married to a pediatric surgeon (Tracee Ellis Ross); Andre worries that his children are growing up in a bubble of whiteness and forgetting their culture and heritage.
As he tries to steer his brood toward heritage awareness (throwing his 13-year-old son a “bro mitzvah” instead of the bar mitzvah the lad longs for), Andre is mocked by his wife and his father (Laurence Fishburne) for leaning toward stereotype rather than recognizing how the world has moved on. “Black-ish” succeeds as a simple comedy in which the writers, performers and the viewer are asked to notice race by not noticing it. (Instead, class and wealth seem to be the bigger issues.)
“The show has so much less to do with race than it does culture and identity and family,” co-creator and writer Kenya Barris told reporters in July during the summer TV press tour. “[Race] is honestly something we’re not running from, obviously, by our title, which we stick behind really fervently.”
But “Black-ish,” Barris said, is about life inside a “quote-unquote ‘post-Obama society’ where race [and] culture are talked about less than ever before. . . . My kids are living in such a homogenized world where there really isn’t a white or black kid within them. . . . We’ve all taken a little bit of ‘-ish’ from each of us, and we blend it into who we are today as a people.”
“-Ish” is an increasingly useful concept in scripted television, which, as a venue for make-believe, will never do a perfect job of reflecting society as it is. A little-ish goes a long way in a TV show about anyone, minority or otherwise. Example: “The Goldbergs,” a ratings success for ABC, is clearly about a Jewish family, who’ve apparently never once made reference to being Jewish. This has the broadening effect of making them Jewish-ish. Likewise, “Modern Family” found huge success by -ishing its gay characters just enough that they became welcome guests in the homes of viewers who previously seemed allergic to stories of gay male couples.
By letting “-ish” work its slight magic, ABC more effortlessly scheduled back-to-back dramas on Thursday from hitmaker Shonda Rhimes that each star a strong black female character — starting with “Scandal,” which will now accompany “How to Get Away With Murder.” The new drama stars Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis, who told reporters and critics that she took the TV job because much of the film work she was being offered felt marginalized. It was as if, she said, “I [had] been invited to a really fabulous party, only to hold up the wall.”
A sense of “-Ish”-ness similarly frees “Cristela,” a sitcom ABC will premiere next month alongside Tim Allen’s almost unbearably retrograde (yet successful) “Last Man Standing” on Friday nights.
“Cristela” stars comedian Cristela Alonzo as a law student who moves in with her sister’s family to save money. On the face of it, “Cristela” shares many traits with multicultural sitcoms that have tanked in the past, the most recent example being George Lopez’s short-lived FX sitcom, “Saint George”: In Lopez’s show, the constant Latino-specific jokes clumsily called attention to themselves. Alonzo’s show emphasizes some of the same atmospherics and core values — a strong and judgmental madre character, for example — but it also shuffles off any obligation to be a “Hispanic” show. (Similar ease with identity and race can be seen in the CW’s new dramedy “Jane the Virgin,” which both celebrates and transcends the telenovela format that inspired it.)
Asked about this, Alonzo seemed less concerned by race or ethnicity (living up to expectations or down to stereotypes) than by whether or not “Cristela” was going to be funny, which it is. She’d grown up in a poor household near the U.S./Mexico border in Texas, absorbing “Murphy Brown” and “Roseanne” episodes. Its clear that those shows are what act as the true heritage here.
“-Ish” by no means solves the networks’ diversity problem. Romantic sitcoms still seem forever destined to be about cute, white people on the make; CBS still seems to think the human-resources approach is the best way to deal with a numbers problem, by assembling diverse teams of crime solvers who may differ racially yet are mainly just rough sketches instead of realistic characters.
“-Ish” also makes it easy to act as if race is no longer a central issue in our culture, which any objectively observant American can tell you is not the case — especially after recent months in which a new outrage involving race relations flares up almost daily. “-Ish” can encourage writers to leapfrog over potential pitfalls rather than face them head-on. The “-Ish” approach signifies progress toward broader, better programming, but as ABC President Paul Lee put it to critics: “Let’s not pretend we’re there yet.”