Network TV's Fall Lineup Distinguished By Diversity
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The fall TV season has an almost unheard of level of ethnic diversity. There are a dozen new broadcast shows with nonwhite stars or nonwhite creators. That includes Anthony Anderson's "Black-ish," which debuts tonight. And NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says what's really different is how some of the new shows talk about race and culture.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Very few TV shows have gotten as much attention this fall as ABC's "Black-ish." It's a comedy about a wealthy black executive who worries that his family has lost connection to their African-American roots. But what's revolutionary about "Black-ish" isn't just the diversity of its cast. It's how the show negotiates race and culture, summed up in a monologue by patriarch Andre Johnson, played by Anthony Anderson.
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ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Andre Johnson) Sometimes I worry that in an effort to make it, black folks have dropped a little bit of their culture and the rest of the world has picked it up. Justin Timberlake and Robin Thick are R-and-B gods. Kim Kardashian is the symbol for big butts. And Asian guys are just unholdable on the dance floor. Come on.
DEGGANS: Executive producer Kenya Barris said, during a press conference, that "Black-ish" shows parents with more traditional racial ideas struggling to raise children in a world where black kids play field hockey and its white performers who are urban.
KENYA BARRIS: You know, Miley Cyrus is urban. You know, Justin Bieber is urban. Like - in the same way you could kind of say they're blackish in some aspects because we've all taken a little bit of the -ish from each of us and we blend it into who we are today as a people.
DEGGANS: That's a long way from the storylines in series like "The Cosby Show" - with a family's black identity was almost taken for granted. And "Black-ish" isn't the only show having new cultural conversations. In the CW's "Jane The Virgin," a Latina girl tries hard not to repeat the mistakes of her mother who got pregnant at 16. But a mix-up in a gynecologist's office leaves Jane pregnant by artificial insemination; and wondering if she should have the baby.
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GINA RODRIGUEZ: (As Jane Villanueva) I was an accident and I know my mom loves me but I also know that, in some ways, I derailed her life. I don't want my kid to feel like that - ever.
DEGGANS: "Jane The Virgin" features three generations of Latinas living in the same house, struggling with issues like premarital sex, an absent father and abortion. Star Gina Rodriguez says she turned down the chance to audition for a role on Lifetime's "Devious Maids," hoping for a non-stereotypical part like Jane. And she dares other Latino stars to change Hollywood by doing the same thing.
RODRIGUEZ: I challenge you to start making projects that are different than the ones that we continue to see, that'll put other Latinos on the map - not just yourself. How about the ant effect? We all bring food to the anthill and we all eat when it arrives.
DEGGANS: That is similar to an idea mentioned by Paul Lee, the head of entertainment for ABC. Speaking during a press conference, he said hiring a diversity of executives and producers helped increase the diversity of their new series, which include comedy centered on a Latino family and an Asian family, in addition "Black-ish."
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PAUL LEE: If you look at shows now that seem to lack diversity, they actually feel dated. America doesn't look like that anymore and people want to see what they live.
DEGGANS: Of course, there's also a business side here. Some of ABC's most-watched scripted shows are its most diverse, including "Resurrection," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal." And now there's "How To Get Away With Murder," a new ABC drama executive produced by "Scandal" creator Shonda Rhimes; and stars Oscar-nominee Viola Davis as a sexy, intense law professor. Davis told reporters it's the kind of role women like her never get to play.
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VIOLA DAVIS: There is no way in the history of film or TV that you've seen a character like this, played by a black woman who looks like me - dark skinned black woman with, you know, the nose, the age. This is a first.
DEGGANS: There are still challenges. Hispanic characters and show creators are still tremendously underrepresented. New shows have a high failure rate and some of these programs still feel a bit too much like one long ethnic joke. But there's also a sense of a page turning in network TV. Finally some networks have realized they can get good ratings and lots of attention by airing series that look more like America. Now all they have to do is make sure they keep doing it. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.