Tag Archives: TV

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

Remember This?? URSULA K. LEGUIN’s *Badass* Response to Syfy’s WhiteWashed EARTHSEA Adaptation?

Back in 2004, the Syfy (back then “The SciFi Channel“) released a miniseries “adaptation” of Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea trilogy, titled Legend of Earthsea

The main cast was entirely white, except for the character Ogion, who was played by Danny Glover (and apparently some spear-wielding primitives).  The problem with that isn’t just that there is a gross lack of diversity in the series (which is a completely legit problem on its own, and one that plagues science fiction entertainment today).

earthseaposter

The problem was that the series was based on books in which the majority of the characters were brown or black… (except for a people made up of brutish, war-hungry white men). The main character was described as “red-brown” and his best friend as just straight up “black”.

Somewhere this got conveniently “lost” in translation. Numerous readers (of every hue– I mean, the books freaking sold over a million copies!) were seriously miffed about many of the liberties taken in the series, and the lovely Ms. Le Guin stood up on the soap box herself and took SyFy to town in an article on Slate.

And boy did she lay down the law!

ursula2
Just look at the side-eye! She means business! (© 2012 Laura Anglin)

The first book of the Earthsea trilogy A Wizard of Earthsea was published on September 13th, 1968– 46 years ago today. So to commemorate this dope series, and her-geeky-outsiderness Ursula K. LeGuin, here are some of the gems from the magnificent shade she threw at the SciFi Channel some 10 years ago:

 

“I had been cut out of the process. And just as quickly, race, which had been a crucial element, had been cut out of my stories. In the miniseries, Danny Glover is the only man of color among the main characters (although there are a few others among the spear-carriers). A far cry from the Earthsea I envisioned.”

 

“My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?”

 

“I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.”

Boxed set cover art of the first three books in the "Earthsea" series, as issued in 1975. Artwork by Pauline Ellison.
Boxed set cover art of the first three books
in the “Earthsea” series, as issued in 1975.
Artwork by Pauline Ellison.

“Gradually I got a little more clout, a little more say-so about covers. And very, very, very gradually publishers may be beginning to lose their blind fear of putting a nonwhite face on the cover of a book. “Hurts sales, hurts sales” is the mantra. Yeah, so? On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a betrayal—a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader.”

“I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don’t notice, don’t care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being “colorblind.” Nobody else does.”

 

Read the full article here

The best part of the article, though, and one of her best points, is that many readers of color wrote to her and let her know how important it was to them to feel included and see themselves represented as heroes in a genre that neglects them to an astonishing degree.

Race-bending characters in adaptations is really cool and can be really interesting. But in a genre (ahem… and an entire entertainment world) where characters of color are completely absent or never get to play hero, it’s something entirely different to take the color out of the picture…

[Insert Pun About Heads Rolling Here]: Sleepy Hollow Premiere Captivatingly Decapitates

sleepy hollow

And all  the ridiculous, punny headlines about Fox new Monday night show Sleepy Hollow are almost as absurdly enjoyable as the show itself.

The show premiered on Monday in a bombardment of historical hijinks, supernatural beheadings, witchcraft, and hot and heavy flirtation with threats of the apocalypse. You could hardly catch your breath to keep up with the break-neck pace of the plot, but apparently folk like their tv in a sprint, because more than 10 million viewers tuned in to catch the premiere, and the pilot rated better than any other Monday night show.

But is this just an ADD-nation love-fest or is the show actually good?

Well, oddly enough, there’s actually too much information to tell at this point. In just an hour the show introduced us to our main protagonists — Lt. Abbie Mills (the ridiculously gorgeous Nicole Beharie) and Ichabod Crane himself (Tom Mison) — beheaded 3 key characters, and basically unraveled every single mystery it had introduced in the first half of the show…. If they keep up this kind of narrative pace, it’s hard to imagine what they’ll have left to tell after 3 or 4 episodes.  Then again, there’s a chance the plan is to get all the plot/surprise/mystery stuff out of the way and really delve into the character’s relationships.

This is not a feeble hope either. There’s plenty of room for development there. Abbie and Ichabod made fast friends in this first episode, after a couple quick bumps in the road, such as when Ichabod’s 18th century misogyny is offended by Lt. Mills’ wearing “trousers” or when Abbie has to side-eye Crane when he questions how a Black woman is allowed to be a police officer.

In this more or less unprecedented case of a Black female lead and a White guy lead sharing screen time (equally!) and playing characters out of time and out of place respectively, there could be a lot to work with there. Likely in less profound ways than Octavia Butler’s Kindred, for example, but maybe in the brief reprieves from heads rolling, these two can establish a meaningful rapport… or at least a sarcastically hilarious one as a point of stability in the whacky whirl of supernatural tropes.

I mean, seriously, in spoilery summary: A time-travelling headless horseman abandons his magical axe for an arsenal of automatic weapons in order to fight a Red Coat superspy scholar revived from death by his good witch wife (whose spirit is stuck in a creepy la la dimension battling demons and evil witch covens) who’s supposed to stop headless baddie from getting his head back, waking up the four-horsemen of the apocalypse and getting his world-destruction on.

Jar head = most inconvenient key to the apocalypse ever

Regardless, this geek is tuning into episode two and holding out hope that a sci-fi series led by a Black woman hero will be ridiculously awesome (or at least awesomely ridiculous)… ’cause it’s about time.

Fine, also because I heart Orlando Jones. I mean, how can you not?