Diversity in TV casting isn't always emulated in plot, but there's progress

We’ve all seen it: the billboard touting a new TV show with a diverse cast of characters — Latino, African-American, Asian, white and so on. But this all-inclusive rainbow casting doesn’t always translate into storylines that reflect the lives of those who have been traditionally underrepresented on television.

“When you hear the dialogue or see the stories, the Asian guy could have been the white guy, the African-American guy the Latino guy. They’re the same characters. They’re just putting a different face on them,” says Christopher Lloyd, co-creator of ABC comedy “Modern Family,” whose characters include a gay couple with an adopted Asian daughter, a Latina mother and son, and an updated “Father Knows Best” white couple with three kids.

“I have been in those meetings where the network executives would say, ‘Look, I’ve got to check a box,’?” Lloyd says. “The public kind of is aware that they’re being manipulated.”

No one, including Lloyd, whose show was originally titled “American Family,” doubts that TV should look more like the USA. Sometimes it just struggles to do it in a genuine way.

Kimberly Myers, director of diversity at the Writers Guild of America West, agrees that attracting the diverse audience networks want means going beyond simply lining up casts to match or amplify U.S. Census data.

“If you want those people viewing, they’ve got to see stories and people that are relevant to their lives,” Myers says.

One way to create programming that takes diversity into account — but is more three-dimensional than a billboard — is to tell stories that do not skirt the issues that some minorities face.

A recent WGA panel, Writing in Color, examined just such a storyline on FX drama “Justified.” The episode featured African-American actress Erica Tazel, who plays series regular U.S. Marshal Rachel Brooks. In it, Rachel expresses her fear of making busts in certain parts of Kentucky, where the show is set.

“Anytime I’ve gone to coal country,” the character says, “everyone was all polite, ‘yes ma’am, no ma’am.’ Trying to keep in mind it’s the 21st Century and what’s expected. But when the cuffs come out, then I’m a black bitch.”

The episode’s writer, Wendy Calhoun, who is African-American, explained that she got the idea from a relative — the only black female correctional officer at a Texas jail — who had seen what was brewing under the “ma’ams” she heard at work.

Realistic storylines can come from the headlines too. CBS senior vice president and chief diversity officer Josie Thomas points to recent episodes of “The Good Wife,” where America Ferrera guest-starred as a college student whose illegal-immigrant status put the brakes on her college career — a clear reference to the Dream Act.

“It was a human story — and also a story specific to a community,” Thomas says. “It spoke to everybody in many respects about the American dream. It was also a very contemporary issue which people disagree on.”

Some are concerned that an episode that goes too far on the theme of diversity will come off like a lesson.

“You get in trouble when you try to force a particular story,” says Christopher Chulack, co-executive producer of “Southland,” the gritty TNT drama featuring a rainbow cast of cops and detectives. “When you start politicizing it and saying, ‘Well, we’re going to take a group of people that have been maligned,’ or there’s a feeling that there’s bigotry against them and we’re just going to portray them in the very best light we can, then it becomes one-note.”

The first season, producers decided not to do media interviews focusing on the fact that a lead character, Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) was gay.

“We were not going to let anyone turn it into ‘tonight on a very special “Southland,” John Cooper comes out to his partner,’?” says Cudlitz. “Of all the problems John Cooper has, being gay is not one of them. It’s not the focus.”

That aspect of the storyline still draws a strong audience response, with police officers messaging Cudlitz on Twitter and Facebook to applaud the realism of Cooper’s character.

Sara Ramirez, who plays a Latina lesbian, Dr. Callie Torres, on ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” embraces storylines that educate viewers. She was enthusiastic when “Grey’s” creator Shonda Rhimes, known for pulling together Crayola-box casts, met with GLAAD for input when the show first took on Callie’s sexuality.

Ramirez also likes that Callie’s Hispanic roots are not the main source of her storylines.

“She’s an orthopedic surgeon who went to college and represents Latinos who don’t have an accent, who are somewhat Americanized, because that exists. The maid, gardener or drug dealer — that’s played out,” Ramirez says.

While dramas deal with diversity with a straight face, acknowledging differences brings laughs in comedies. When the grumpy white “Modern Family” patriarch lovingly referred to his adoptive Asian grandchild as “the little pot-sticker,” Lloyd knew they might step on a few toes, but, “He’s not being racist, but you can’t make him be all perfect all of a sudden because that’s not true to that character.”

No matter what the tone of a show, WGAW’s Myers says a sure way to avoid superficial treatments of race, sexual preference and disability is for television to employ a more diverse group of writers. The latest WGA report data show that only 10% of writing staffs are people of color.

Television networks are working to improve this with a range of diversity initiatives like mentoring programs and actor showcases.

Nicole Bernard, senior vice president of audience strategy at Fox, the network of “Glee,” which has perhaps the most kaleidoscopic cast on TV, stresses that these network efforts are not just box-checking mandates. She says a more natural approach pays off with audiences big time.

“That is why ‘Glee’ is so successful,” Bernard says. “It doesn’t feel forced. You don’t have pandering or stereotyping. It doesn’t feel like a kneejerk reaction to the 2010 census.”

And audiences are eating it up. Besides, with wacky storylines like cheerleading coaches who want their high school squads to become human cannonballs, the diverse makeup of the cast may actually be the most unremarkable thing about the show.

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