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The ‘Wonder Years’ remake resurrects a 1970 tactic to diversify TV viewing

Putting Black characters in situations familiar to White viewers aims to build empathy and interest

“The Wonder Years” (2021) follows the Williams family and is set in 1968. (Erika Doss/ABC)

The opening scene of ABC’s new version of “The Wonder Years” (2021) establishes the show’s premise — a familiar one, even though it is set in 1968. Twelve-year-old Dean Williams (Elisha Williams) has just received “the police talk” from his parents, a presidential election has created a racial divide, and Americans fear a global flu pandemic. The message is clear: Our contemporary social and political problems are nothing new.

But the remake isn’t really about tracing the roots of our contemporary crises. Rather, it is an exploration of the contrast between how the Black middle-class Williams family experienced 1968 and how the White Arnold family of the original, much-beloved version of the “The Wonder Years” (1988-1993) experienced that same turbulent year. In this way, the show draws upon ABC’s long history of airing television shows that embrace “racial inversion,” to portray the Black experience by remaking all-White productions. These shows date to 1970, when executives hoped they would elicit empathy for non-White Americans while attracting a more diverse audience to the network.

Television networks struggled to figure out how to script programs about race during the increased civil unrest of the late 1960s. In 1968, the Kerner Commission condemned media outlets for sensationalizing news reports about Black unrest and political militancy. Media also contributed to racial division, the report argued, by failing to incorporate the everyday experiences of Black people — at work, in school, with family — into the broader television landscape. White audiences could watch hours of television shows and commercials without seeing Black humanity. The occasional “token” Black character might appear, but usually only as a story prop. In addition to the Kerner Report, the Federal Communications Commission and Black activists pressured networks to integrate programming in meaningful ways.

Thanks to this pressure, the 1968 television season featured more Black cast members than ever before, on new shows like “Julia” (1968-1971), “Mod Squad” (1968-1973) and “Room 222” (1968-1974).

Nevertheless, by 1970, television networks found themselves at a crossroads. Black actors and critics publicly decried these efforts to diversify. They argued that, despite the promise of increased Black visibility, networks relied on a distinctly White interpretation of the Black experience. As Diahann Carroll, the star of “Julia,” put it: “I’m a Black woman with a White image.”

Meanwhile, White audiences weren’t exactly keen on these changes, either. White TV viewers pushed back against increased representation of Blackness by writing angry letters to television producers, sponsors and periodicals such as TV Guide. They also changed the channel. The result: Many of the first truly integrated television shows generated low ratings.

Networks could not reverse course and eliminate Black characters, but they needed to find a new way to include diverse experiences.

Enter racial inversion. Rather than portraying a harmoniously integrated society, which critics pointed out was an inauthentic representation of American life anyway, producers experimented with racially inverting TV narratives by placing more realistic Black characters in scenarios and story lines familiar to White audiences.

The remaking of “Barefoot in the Park” (1970) — an all-Black sitcom based on the well-known all-White Broadway play and romantic comedy film (1967) starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford — did just that. Producers preserved the general premise of “Barefoot in the Park”: Newlyweds in New York take on their quirky old building, a meddling mother-in-law and an eccentric neighbor. But the Black cast members of the 1970 sitcom were not simply whitewashed substitutes for the characters from the film. Aware of Black critiques that depictions of Blackness in “Julia” were unrealistic, producers of “Barefoot” altered dialogue, plots and characters to reflect what they viewed as a more accurate portrayal of Black America.

Tracy Reed, the female lead on the show, understood its goal. She was excited to present a Black married couple kissing and going through the same growing pains all newlyweds go through. Showing Black people “performing the same function” as Whites, recalled Reed in an interview, “they subconsciously will accept you as people too — and hopefully go on from there.”

Despite an enthusiastic response to the pilot in audience surveys, tensions between actor Scoey Mitchell, who portrayed Reed’s husband, and the show’s White writers escalated during production. The writers for “Barefoot” consulted with members of the Watts drama workshop to learn about “the relationship black people have when they are alone, without white people around,” but Mitchell felt that Black writers should have been hired, not just consulted, to work on the sitcom. Disagreements traveled up the network and studio chain of command, and, ultimately, Paramount fired Mitchell and canceled the show after its first season.

ABC’s experimentation with racial inversion did not stop with “Barefoot.” A 1970 episode of “Bewitched,” titled “Sisters at Heart,” used racial role reversal to encourage audiences to practice empathy. In this episode, daughter Tabitha (Erin Murphy) is unsettled when another child tells her she cannot be sisters with her friend Lisa (Venetta Rogers) because Tabitha is White and Lisa is Black. Tabitha then uses her witchcraft to turn Lisa White (on-screen, Lisa is presented in whiteface), and turns herself Black (Tabitha is presented in blackface). The girls reject both options, worried their parents won’t recognize them. Nonetheless, Tabitha’s desire to be sisters with Lisa is so intense that, through her practice of “wishcraft,” she still manages to give each girl polka dots of the opposite color — black and white. Later in the episode, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) uses her own witchcraft to make a racist man see himself and other White people as Black, and in doing so enlightens him.

Unlike “Barefoot,” however, the episode was written by a 10th-grade English class at the predominantly-Black Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, a detail Montgomery explains to audiences before the episode begins. The show’s intention was to challenge viewers to overlook physical differences to see the possibility of racial brotherhood — or in this case, sisterhood.

These shows, as progressive as they were in their moment, appeared during a television sea change. They marked a turning point in which racially integrated programming was falling out of favor and more socially provocative series, such as “All in the Family” and “Good Times,” were on the horizon. As FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson recognized, Americans needed “help as a nation, to understand ourselves, our neighbors, and our country’s plight.” Television, he believed, could help bridge those divides.

But for producers, bridging that divide meant finding a commercially viable way to overcome the negative effects of a lack of Black representation on television. Television creators quickly learned that integrating Black characters into a White televisual world was more difficult than anticipated given the harsh realities of segregation that existed throughout the country. Incorporating different forms of racial inversion, therefore, became a way to appeal to both Black and White audiences.

With more channels and shows available to watch than ever, the issue 21st-century producers face is not a lack of representation. Instead, it is segregated audiences. According to a 2018 Nielsen report, series with racially diverse casts draw mostly White audiences. The audience for “Black-ish,” for example, was 58 percent White and 28 percent Black, while “This Is Us” has an even Whiter audience: 79 percent White and only 10 percent Black. Conversely, shows with primarily Black casts draw mostly Black audiences: “Empire’s” audience was 25 percent White vs. 61 percent Black, while “Atlanta’s” was 27 percent White and 57 percent Black.

“The Wonder Years” redux, therefore, is resurrecting an old tradition in an effort to bring Black and White audiences together, which — as the history suggests — may not be very successful. The fact that television producers continue to employ the same method a half-century later to provoke empathy and interest from White audiences in shows with Black casts speaks volumes about how White Americans still don’t fully understand or accept the perspectives of people of color. Which is why the message about diversity in historical perspective is just as important as how that message is presented.

In 1970, Johnson, the FCC commissioner, observed that the people in the television industry “know how to help the country in an entertaining and constructive way.” Although this may be true, and even more so today, the history of racial inversion tells us there are limitations to television’s ability to mediate a deeply divided America.