Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Primetime racial divide still exists - Black actors on the new fall TV schedule

Twenty-four years ago this month, the American TV landscape was changed forever when "The Cosby Show" debuted on NBC. Like most sitcoms, it was a story about a couch and the people who sit on it; but this couch was in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone owned by a black obstetrician married to a black attorney and raising five black children. Sure, the premise was far-fetched; but we all wanted to believe in the myth of a thriving, educated, middle-class black family, so we bought it. Literally. There was a time when a minute of ad time on "Cosby" was more expensive than a minute of ad time during the Super Bowl.

For guys who fit my demographic profile (black, male, urban, born in the 1970s), the show provided us with our first glimpse of ourselves on television in a character who would become a cultural archetype, Theo Huxtable.

Fast-forward a few decades to the new 2010 fall season, and Theo is back on network TV, he's all grown up, and he is doing his thing.

Not on CBS, though. The "Corpses," "Big Bang," and "Survivor" network has very little use for black actors who aren't former hip-hoppers (LL Cool J in "NCIS: Los Angeles," Flex Alexander in "Blue Bloods"), so Theo gets no love. Rather than attempt to reach out to black and brown audiences, CBS has decided that a heaping helping of vanilla is the right recipe for the fall schedule. Its new shows are led by has-been actors like Tom Selleck and Jim Belushi, never-were actors like Jerry O'Connell and Scott Caan, and never-will-be actors like Billy Gardell. On the plus side, CBS did put the great William Shatner back on TV in something other than a Priceline ad — and they deserve some credit for that.

At the other end of the diversity-is-a-fact-of-American-life-and-should-be-portrayed-on-American-television spectrum is ABC; with six new shows featuring some pretty good black actors. In his role as a medical examiner in "Body of Proof," Wendell Middlebrooks gets a chance to atone for the cartoonish beer truck driver he's been playing in commercials. Jason George plays another doctor in "Off the Map," while Damon Wayans, Jr. continues the family tradition in "Happy Endings," and Mehcad Brooks (Eggs Benedict of "True Blood" fame) gets a chance to show what he can do in "My Generation." The new ABC shows I'm most excited to TiVo are "No Ordinary Family," starring Judd Apatow's favorite black actor, Romany Malco, "Mr. Sunshine" starring James Lesure (who was incredible in "Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip" and is good enough to carry Matthew Perry, which he'll have to do), and "Detroit 1-8-7" starring James McDaniel and Jon Michael Hill.

Theo Huxtable's original home, NBC, falls somewhere in between the others. The network doesn't pretend as though black people are invisible like CBS does, and it hasn't flooded its schedule with black actors as ABC has; rather, it's going with a strange hybrid of heterogeneousness this fall season. They've got their basic all-white casts on "Law & Order" and "Chuck" and "Parenthood." For their Thursday night ensemble comedies they're sticking with the "Friends" model (one ethnic character, maybe two), but they've added a clichéd fish-out-of-water show about a young, square-jawed white guy managing a call center full of what I'm sure will be whacky brown people in India. I can already hear the canned laugh track over the "I'm not rogan joshing you" jokes.

At the same time, NBC is spending some pretty serious money on prime time television shows that are led by talented, attractive black men. They've got J.J. Abrams, the creator of "Alias" and co-creator of "Lost," executive producing and directing the pilot of "Undercovers," a show about a spy couple running their own restaurant as a retirement career who find themselves back in the game. It airs on Wednesdays, stars the versatile Boris Kodjoe, and will probably be the best new show of the fall. NBC also has Blair Underwood starring as the president of the United States in "The Event," a serialized, "Lost" meets "24" drama that will air on Monday nights. When you add Jimmy Smits' ridiculous new Friday show about a conservative Supreme Court Justice who sees the liberal light and becomes an ACLU-style crusader, you've got 60 percent of NBC's primetime schedule featuring non-white actors. Since it took until the last season of "Friends" for the first black character to show up, I call that progress.

Primetime television is important for our society because no matter how hard these actors work to tell fictional stories about people from different backgrounds coming together, at 11:01 p.m. our local news is going to feature stories about black and brown men threatening the health and safety of innocent white people. So I hope that one of these days, CBS finds a compelling story to tell about a black man who isn't a police officer, that ABC can find a black actor good enough to lead a primetime TV show, and NBC and "Saturday Night Live" will finally cast a black actor and a black actress to play the thriving, educated, middle-class black couple living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.


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