Race + TV: NBC (And The Rest)–More Colorful!

By Guest Contributor Kendra James

If you’re a regular R reader, you’ve been noticing that quite a bit of the stuff on TV–and by “stuff,” I mean “how characters of color have been treated”– has given us the blues while we’re not giving side-eye to what’s on the tiny screen. It’s hard to be optimistic given everything, but dare I say that network television might be listening? It’s pilot season, and if you’ve been out of the loop and hadn’t heard about some of the more diverse bits of new casting, I’ve got you covered.

The news of Lucy Liu as Watson on CBS’ Elementary was the first of a few announcements that piqued my interest this spring. BBC’s Sherlock fandom went predictably ballistic over: first, the news of an American Sherlock Holmes story (forgetting en masse, I suppose, that House has existed for eight years now); then the casting of a female in the Watson role; finally. that the wardrobe department would dare put Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) in a scarf “so similar” to the BBC’s version’s. (you think I’m joking?)

Weird, as the first thing I thought about was how she’d be the singular leading lady of Asian descent on network television.

Rochelle Aytes. Courtesy: Hairspiration

Funny how priorities can flip like that. But it’s all right, because as it turns out I was wrong. Word broke that Yunjin Kim (Lost) would be returning to ABC in 2013 as part of a four-woman ensemble cast in the American reboot of the BBC’s Mistresses. African-American actor Rochelle Aytes also stars as one of the four, actually making the leading cast more diverse than it was in the original BBC version. While 2013 is a ways off, if the ABC Sunday night lineup stays similar to what it is now, Mistresses would fit in nicely. The show’s plot is no more complicated than the title makes it out to be and, along with Good Christian Bitches, it could fill the rest of the ‘evening soap opera’ void that the departing Desperate Housewives is going to leave.

Scandal, also on ABC, will premiere this April starring Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a PR executive who specialises in cleaning up DC scandals. The series was developed by network staple Shonda Rhimes and will be the only show on network television to be helmed by an African-American actress when it starts. Back when  Undercovers  was cancelled there were some who wondered if with that failure black actors had completely failed at their one chance to lead an hour-long drama. It’s risky for a network that depends on millions of viewers for advertising revenue to cast a lead that the majority of viewers (read: white people) may not relate to.

While a show like Pan Am (fondly known as Carefree White Girls Explore the Third World) can fail to take off without consequence, it feels, at times, as if the fate of every black actor and actress on television rides on the success or failure of one show each season. Undercovers was NBC’s but, under Rhimes’ care, Scandal could be different and Washington could be looking at a few successful seasons on network television. While I’ve never seen or had much interest in Grey’s Anatomy or Private Practice, Rhimes seems adept in successfully navigating POCs successfully through the network-television puzzle for multiple seasons. Also starring Peruvian-Scottish actor Henry Ian Cusick (Lost), openly gay Cuban-American actor Guillermo Diaz, and African American actor Columbus Short (who, criminally, hasn’t been on television since 2007’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) in supporting roles, I’m hoping that Scandal drums up enough interest in its seven episode debut to continue into the fall.

Ms. Washington will be joined by Eve’s Bayou star Meagan Good over on NBC’s Notorious. Plot details for this one are sketchy, but the network is looking to recreate the nighttime soaps of the 1980s (think Dallas – which returns to TNT this June). Good will play a detective who returns to the rich family with whom she grew up (her mom is the family’s housekeeper) in order to solve the mystery of their daughter’s murder.

As more plot details come out (and assuming the show is even picked up) it’s going to be interesting to see where the show is set and how the housekeeping angle is handled–with the advent of The Help, these are, unfortunately, things we have to think about. That aside, it’s nice to see a Black actress cast in a lead role that isn’t necessarily coded as African-American or black. Much like Washington’s character on Scandal, Olivia Pope (Good’s detective character) seems as if could have gone to an actress of any race, a bucking of the trend that’s heartening to see in network casting. (It’s also heartening to know that more turns like Notorious in Good’s career could mean less turns in films like Think Like a Man. But I’ll leave that for someone else to deal with.)

FOX jumps into the casting frenzy with Cuba Gooding Jr. starring in something that does not involve Tom Cruise, cruise ships, or children on a sugar high. Lover of a good career comeback that I am, I’m rooting for Guilty this fall where Gooding will play an ethically challenged lawyer who’s stripped of his license to practice, yet continues to solve cases thanks to his bag of unorthodox tricks. There’s no question that Gooding has made some interesting career choices since his Oscar-winning performance in Jerry Maguire, and that Oscar pins him in the same group of black actors I spoke about before: they win awards and then seem to have to turn to television for quality work. I’m still not mad at them, though I do hope that this influx of POC actors on television isn’t because while the network casting process is becoming more welcoming, film casting is becoming less so.

A few other favorites include Michael B. Jordan who’ll be reuniting with showrunner Jason Katims (of Friday Night Lights fame) in the new NBC ensemble show County; Ana Ortiz will join ABC’s Devious Maids (another adapted telenovela, the second for the network); Phylicia Rashad takes a turn as a chief of surgery on NBC’s Do No Harm: and–my personal favorite newsbite–Angela Bassett joins a yet-to-be-named FOX spy drama from the team behind Bones. I haven’t covered network costarring roles, starring comedy and sitcom roles, or many ensemble cast roles (where the ‘star’ isn’t necessarily defined); then, over in the cable landscape, we find more than a dozen other POC names coming to both star, join ensembles, and costar on shows. It should also be kept in mind that not all of these shows will be picked up in the end. However, this jump in the casting of POCs on network television warms my heart. Networks are choosing to place non-white faces in starring roles on channels that every American with a television has access to without having to pay in roles that, at first glance, don’t seem to be racially coded.

Courtesy: Vanity Fair

It’ll be an exciting summer, watching to see how these shows develop, which will get dropped, which actors leave and come in, and ultimately how the shows that do make it past the pilot season are promoted on their various networks. Will more POC faces in starring roles mean more POC faces on morning and late night talk shows, magazine covers (note: check out Vanity Fair’s women of TV spread where, while potentially problematic, four out of the 11 women featured are WOC), or eventually film roles? Is this is the beginning of some equalising trend in the television industry, or is it just a fluke? I can’t say that I or anyone else will be watching each and every one of these shows in a display of solidarity, but looking at this full list of 2012-2013 pilots … well, can I say my TV Co-correspondent job here at the R just got that much more interesting?

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  • Annie

    Thanks for the article! I’ll definitely keep a lookout for some of these shows in the upcoming season. Also, I know she’s animated, but Korra is a badass woman of color that I think deserves some love too :)

  • Annie

    Thanks for the article! I’ll definitely keep a lookout for some of these shows in the upcoming season. Also, I know she’s animated, but Korra is a badass woman of color that I think deserves some love too :)

    • Sori

      It’s interesting that you mention Korra! I think childrens shows tend to be way more diverse overall than adult shows. There are more positive, non stereotypical versions of POC on a lot of children’s shows/cartoons.

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  • April Yee

    Wow, thanks for this comprehensive summary! I’m feeling less disappointed with mainstream U.S. networks after reading it.

  • hellogoodbye

    “Weird, as the first thing I thought about was how she’d be the singular leading lady of Asian descent on network television. ”

    Well, no. There’s also Maggie Q on Nikita! She’s the titular character, too, and much of the story revolves around her – you know how sometimes you have a show featuring both white and POC leads, and somehow the show always coincidentally ends up focusing on the white characters? That doesn’t happen here. :) It is an excellent show, btw. Don’t let its CW credentials scare you. The Vampire Diaries, it isn’t. 

  • http://twitter.com/KJenNu Kaila Heard

    I already had planned to turn on Scandal one of these days, but I’m really excited to hear about the Sherlock remake with Liu. I love the BBC version. But – and this is because she is WOC – I hope they would allow her to seem a bit more smarter, more competent than the traditional Watson. 

  • Jay

    I’m excited to see Yunjin Kim back on American TV. She was one of the main reasons I watched Lost.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    ” That aside, it’s nice to see a Black actress cast in a lead role that isn’t necessarily coded as African-American or black.”

    Why? What’s wrong with a role being coded African American? If a Black actor is just stepping into White shoes then is that really something positive. It’s like when people say ‘I don’t see race or color’, like there is something wrong with people being who they are.

    Also it’s problematic for me that attractive actors of color almost always are paired romantically with a White person on network TV. The Good Wife is a perfect example of this. I’ve already seen ads showing Kerry Washington’s character in a romantic embrace with a White actor.

    To me true acceptance means that a Black actor can play a Black character without it being a stereotypical part and an actor of color can be paired romantically with another actor of color. Otherwise Black actors and actors of color are just being fantasies for White TV writers.

    • Gotye

      I agree with this

    • RLS

      Baby steps, Val.  Baby Steps.

    • Furious Anjel

       ”Why? What’s wrong with a role being coded African American?”

      Hollywood will try to tell you otherwise, but there’s no specific way all African-Americans behave or see the world around them. Shoehorning them into a type is what perpetuates the stereotypes.

      “If a Black actor is just stepping into White shoes then is that really something positive.”

      How do you determine if a role is Black enough?

      • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

         ”…but there’s no specific way all African-Americans behave or see the
        world around them. Shoehorning them into a type is what perpetuates the
        stereotypes.”

        My point is that it is not a negative for a character to be written as Black, unless of course stereotypes are apart of the outline. So why is it a positive for a Black person or person of color to fill a role that has no ties to their ethnicity? For example; most of Mya Rudolf’s roles are devoid of any non-White ethnicity. Why is that? The same goes for most of the roles that Rashida Jones plays.

        Roles like these are intended, in my opinion, to minimize the character’s ethnicity as though there is something inherently wrong with not being White. That’s the problem. It’s either overt stereotypes or totally ignoring ethnicity. There is a middle ground.

      • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

         ”…but there’s no specific way all African-Americans behave or see the
        world around them. Shoehorning them into a type is what perpetuates the
        stereotypes.”

        My point is that it is not a negative for a character to be written as Black, unless of course stereotypes are apart of the outline. So why is it a positive for a Black person or person of color to fill a role that has no ties to their ethnicity? For example; most of Mya Rudolf’s roles are devoid of any non-White ethnicity. Why is that? The same goes for most of the roles that Rashida Jones plays.

        Roles like these are intended, in my opinion, to minimize the character’s ethnicity as though there is something inherently wrong with not being White. That’s the problem. It’s either overt stereotypes or totally ignoring ethnicity. There is a middle ground.

        • Furious Anjel

           ”My point is that it is not a negative for a character to be written as
          Black, unless of course stereotypes are apart of the outline. So why is
          it a positive for a Black person or person of color to fill a role that
          has no ties to their ethnicity? For example; most of Mya Rudolf’s roles
          are devoid of any non-White ethnicity. Why is that? The same goes for
          most of the roles that Rashida Jones plays.”

          Fair point. Characters of color should not be islands unto themselves. But a PoC character written as an individual and not part of  a clichéd monolith is always a positive.

          “Roles like these are intended, in my opinion, to minimize the
          character’s ethnicity as though there is something inherently wrong with
          not being White. That’s the problem. It’s either overt stereotypes or
          totally ignoring ethnicity. There is a middle ground.”

          This probably has more to do with the fact that there aren’t enough people of color who are showrunners, producers and writers.