Tag Archives: John Cho

50 Years After Color TV, TV Networks Finally Putting *Color* On TV

It used to be if you wanted to turn on the TV and actually see non-white characters, your options were telenovelas, BET, or whatever all-Black cast family show was the Black show of the decade.

Seriously. Half of the history of Black folk leading TV shows looks like a bunch of awkwardly missed high-fives, or like the passing of a fairly unheroic torch. It looks a lot like the #ThereCanOnlyBeOne Rule of Black men in The Walking Dead.

onlyone

Just as The Cosby Show dared to add a little more color to TV land in 1984, The Jeffersons called it quits a year later. #ThereCanOnlyBeOne Black family movin’ on up.

On the tail of The Cosby Show‘s wild success, comes Family Matters with the all-too-adorable Steve Urkel in 1989, 3 years later… Cosby who? #ThereCanOnlyBeOne quirky Black Guy with a funny voice.

Then, you get the “glory days” of the early 90’s…

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and In Living Color bring us some funny, some color, and some dope soundtracks in 1990.

Then in 1992 & 1993 Martin and Living Single finally stop futsing around with that big, middle-class family shit, and dare to talk about Black people dating and *gasp* even having sex. Finally it looks like we’re gonna get some diversity of experience in these Black TV shows!

Next thing you know, 1994 brings us some young Black female perspective in Sister, Sister with Tia and Tamara Mowry giving little Mary Kate and Ashley a run for their money. And (it’s possible I’m the only one who actually watched it, but…) Moesha manages to bring Brandi to the small screen without execs screaming #ThereCanOnlyBeOne Black teen female show!.

But, of course, we speak too soon. The same year Sister, Sister launches, In Living Color goes dark.  Then, Fresh Prince bails on us in 1996. Martin a year later in 1997. Family Matters and Living Single in 1998. Finally Sister,Sister  bites the dust in 1999.

Lucky for us, The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show were kind enough to give us a handful of funny Black characters to last us until the new decade, when they took a dive to make room for The Parkers (1999) and Girlfriends (2000).  Since then, there have, of course, been others, and always a few attempts to branch out into other genres. This is clearly not an exhaustive list… but it’s pretty damn close!

I know, I know, that sounds like a lot, right? Like Black folk should be glad we had so much representation on TV. And a few years ago I’d have been the first one to reminisce on the old days of good (okay, maybe not The Parkers).  But then, what about all the other brown folk that make up this massive chunk o’ land?

All-AmericanGirlWell…Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which focused on a Korean-American family, lasted one whole year from 1994-1995 and is pretty much the only show that had dared cast a majority case of Asian characters. Before that the presence of Asian-descent characters on the small screen was pretty much a toss-up between abysmal or painfully offensive. John Cho managed to snag a leading role in Flash Forward in 1996, but that was cancelled after a year too… There are, of course, a couple of odds and ends — a Glenn in Walking Dead here, a couple from Lost there.  But you get the trend…

While I wish I could bore you to tears with the history of the representation of every community of color in TV, I think we get the idea…

Just a year or two ago, the dearth of brown faces on TV was a regular one of those “too true, *sigh*” conversations I’d have with my friends every few weeks.

But then, a funny thing happened…

It was just me, a bottle of cheap chardonnay, and a TV remote on a blizzardy Friday night. Making my usual OnDemand rounds, I manage to spend 5+ hours (yep, and I wasn’t even done yet!) without watching a single show that did not feature a leading character of color.

And it was all over the map here. I got in my high drama with Cookie (Empire) and Olivia Pope (Scandal). I got my mystery-thriller on with Professor Annalise Keating (How To Get Away With Murder), my supernatural freaky with Angelica Celaya‘s Zed on Constantine, straight horror with American Horror Story, some superhero action with Cisco the West family in The Flash. Some hilarious family antics with Fresh Off The Boat and Modern Family. And, of course, got some nerdy historical fiction on with the Mills sisters and Irving in Sleepy Hollow.  If I was really desperate I could even have hunted down some Grey’s Anatomy for some medical drama.

This is the first time that TV hasn’t relegated characters of color either to the margins of an otherwise white cast, as “the brown friend,” but actually has characters of color leading prime time shows. And some are even heroes, villains, love interests… freaking complex, rounded, rich characters!

Seriously, *look* at the cast! Photo Credit: Kevin Parry for Paley Center for Media
Seriously, *look* at the cast! Photo Credit: Kevin Parry for Paley Center for Media

At this point, I’m dosed on half a bottle of wine and five hours of Mexican psychics, Black detectives, Cuban mechanical engineers, Creole superwitches, and Taiwanese Steakhouse owners. And as soon as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is back on, trust that I’ll be cheering every time Melinda May hands some supposed badass his… um… ass.

And the future is looking promising too!

Jill Marie Jones was just cast as the leading lady in the STARZ original series Ash vs. Evil Dead and the cast of the promising new NBC series Doubt is getting browner and browner with its casting of Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black), Dule Hill (Psych), and Kobi Libii. And on the geeky side of things (where I live), we’ve got Powers to look forward to with Susan Heyward as Deena Pilgrim.

heyward-pilgrim
via. comicsalliance

Now, despite wine-wasted me fist-pumping and “f*&k yeah!”-ing to my marathon of brown TV, a little sobriety reveals the facts. While we’re making some phenomenal strides, and young brown TV-addled kids everywhere are surely gaining a greater sense of self-worth and possibilities for their life narratives, we’ve got a ways to go.

Before Fresh Off the Boat,  ABC’s Selfie was pretty much the only sitcom with a leading Asian actor, and it still qualifies as the only one with that traditional romantic comedy love story we’ve all come to love. But before John Cho‘s character could get laid, ABC cancelled the show, which had garnered a strong cult following. Now Fresh Off The Boat is on it’s own in sitcom land, while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has got to hold it down on the action/superhero side with leading actresses Chloe Bennet & Ming Na Wen.

Selma still flopped at the box office, while Taken 3 (Taken number effing 3, people!) kicked the box office’s ass times $40 million…There’s something seriously wrong with that.

But let’s stick to television for now.  While we’ve got some seriously great shows led by folks of color. People of color are still majorly underrepresented, or worse misrepresented on many of the most popular TV shows, restricted to roles of the sexless side-kick, quick-to-quip Black friend, magical negro native, wise asian man, “thugs”, “homies”, criminals, or victims.

It’s time to color prime time with POC characters who can be goodhearted heroes finding their way, stressed out househusbands, know-it-all law students, hot dudes with daddy issues, nerdy girls with dynamic programming issues…

If we can’t even imagine people of color as diverse, complex, three-dimensional, real people in our stories, how the hell are the people who stay snug and terrified in their homogenous lala lands ever going to believe that Mexican women can be described with words other than “fiery,” or that some Black women aren’t actually just waiting for the chance to show-off their snap-eyeroll-suck teeth combo, or that the woman in the hijab is giddy planning her upcoming wedding not plotting the violent destruction of the U.S…. or that sixteen-year-old Black boys aren’t “demons” who deserve to be shot in the street…

We’re at least doing better in this small screen venue, but we need to do even better, ever better

Newer Frontiers: Will The Star Trek Reboot Live Up to Its Social-Frontier-Breaking Legacy?

Star Trek was one of the most forward-thinking TV shows of its era. First airing in 1966, it boldly pushed at the boundaries of the social issues of the day, not shying away from controversial subjects like race and women’s liberation. And you don’t have to be a “Trekkie” to know that Star Trek was also one of the most diverse TV shows of its time, possibly of all time.

The regular cast of the Original series included Black communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Japanese senior helmsman Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, and the young Russian ensign Pavel Chekov. In fact, even the iconic Spock was played by actor Leonard Nimoy, who is of Ukranian Jewish heritage. Happily each of these iconic characters made it to the Star Trek reboot, the second installment of which premieres tomorrow!

However, what made Star Trek so universally adored for decades across such a wide array of audiences was its fearless confrontation of many of the most controverial social issues of the day.  While it was thrilling to see characters like Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov return to the big screen for the 2009 reboot, to really capture the Star Trek legacy, this rebooted franchise needs to be much more than the action adventure film of the 2009 film. A Star Trek that fans will recognize would take on the issues of our day… issues like anti-Muslim hate, the rampant manic fear of terrorism, LGBTQ rights (check out Devon Maloney‘s insights on this over at Wired), slut-shaming, abortion, police violence, the achievement gap… Just as The Original Series drew on metaphors to talk about the Vietnam War and dared to air the first interracial kiss on television.

Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk kiss in the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode of “Star Trek: The Original Series” (1968)

Whether or not audiences always agreed with the social commentary of the original Star Trek series and films, it was notable that a show with such a large following was bold enough to bring these issues to the forefront.  Though today several small screen and big screen features  address many of our society’s issues in interesting ways, the Star Trek franchise, with its status as an iconic science fiction series, could have a large impact on these important conversations. The first Star Trek reboot film in 2009 was more or less solely an action adventure. Here’s hoping tomorrow’s premier shows at least a hint of the franchise returning to its bold roots!

In the meantime, before the movie premieres tomorrow and the critics emerge, let’s get in the celebrating mood…

Aside from the famous Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov, throughout the decades Star Trek featured many other dynamic characters of color, some of them even nabbing prominent or recurring roles in the epic Star Trek story. Here are a few we might look forward to seeing again in the reboot!

Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) was a helmsman and the chief engineer in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was also born blind and so wore a visor that allowed him non-standard vision.  His father Doctor La Forge also appeared in a few episodes.

Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn) was the first Klingon to join the Star Fleet. He first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation as a tactical officer before being promoted to Chief of Security. Originally not intended to be a regular character, Worf appeared in more episodes than any other character.

Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) was a mysterious recurring character in Star Trek: The Next Generation and also appeared in two Star Trek films. Her race is never mentioned in the TV series, but she is later described as El-Aurian in one of the films. Guinan is a bartender on the ship is believed to have lived for several centuries. She is often depicted listening to members of the fleet and offering advice.

Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) was played by Sudanese-American actor Alexander Siddig (aka Siddig El Fadil). He was the chief medical officer in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) was the first and only Black character to lead as Commander in the Star Trek series. He was the Captain in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A New Orleans native, he was originally the owner of a restaurant in New Orleans before joining Starfleet and moving swiftly up the ranks.

Tuvok (Tim Russ) was possibly the first Black Vulcan to appear in the franchise, making his first appearance as the chief of security and chief tactical officer in Star Trek: Voyager. His Vulcan wife T’Pel also appears in several episodes.

Chakotay (Robert Beltran) – Played by actor Robert Beltran, who is of Mexican-Native American heritage, Chakotay first appeared as First Officer in Star Trek: Voyager

Hoshi Sato (Linda Park), played by Korean American actress Linda Park, was the communications officer in Star Trek: Enterprise. She was a linguist who could speak 40+ languages

Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) – So in The Original Series, the iconic villain Khan was played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. The role of Khan is being reprised in Star Trek: Into Darkness by British Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch. We’ll definitely be seeing Khan. While he won’t be portrayed by an actor of color as in the past, the fan favorite Cumberbatch is sure to give an incredible performance.