Four years ago, Alan Yang wrote a pilot about a father and son. Both characters were white.
At the time, Yang, whose own father is from Taiwan, was a writer for “Parks and Recreation,” and Greg Daniels, a “Parks” executive producer, was advising Yang as he worked on the script. “Why not make the father and son Asian?” Daniels asked. Yang refused.
“It wasn’t even other people that shut it down,” Yang says. “I shut it down in my own brain.”
What Yang now calls his “misguided conservatism” arose from a practical concern: What if no one wanted to make a comedy about an Asian father and son? After all, since the crash and burn of Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” two decades ago, shows revolving around the lives of nonwhite families had been few and far between, especially on the broadcast networks.
Cut to 2015, when “Master of None,” the Netflix comedy Yang created with “Parks and Rec” star Aziz Ansari, tackled issues of race, class and gender head on, winning raves from critics and fans. Few shows have done a more thorough job of exposing the absurd notion that American society has ever been post-racial.
One episode singled out for praise was “Parents,” in which Dev (Ansari) tried to connect with his father, a successful physician who’d emigrated to America from India decades before. At one point, Dev and his dad go out to dinner with Dev’s best friend, Brian, and his father — who had been born in Taiwan.
“The seeds of the (pilot) are a little bit in the ‘Parents’ episode,” Yang says. But because he and Ansari weren’t censoring themselves when they wrote the show, what was depicted in that installment was “more true to life and more true to my actual experiences,” he adds.
“Master of None” is part of a wave of buzzed-about comedies and dramas that are taking on race in bracing, irreverent and unapologetic ways. In the past few years, “Black-ish,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Jane the Virgin,” “The Carmichael Show,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Empire,” “Scandal,” “American Crime” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” are just a few of the shows that have openly acknowledged how far America has to go when it comes to issues of institutional racism and interpersonal bias.
The willingness to take on thorny topics and explore a wide variety of American lives has paid dividends: The shows have received more than their share of media and awards attention, as well as devotion from fans, who have long been hungry to see a more representative array of characters depicted on the small screen.
Yang said he was a little startled recently when a bartender praised the comedy at an awards event. “He was an older white guy, probably in his 70s,” Yang says. “Very different types of people responding positively has been great.”
Another Netflix show was among the first of this recent wave to put race squarely at the center of its agenda and win kudos in the bargain. “Orange Is the New Black” started out as the tale of a middle-class white woman’s sojourn in prison, but the ensemble of characters of all races and backgrounds quickly became the show’s main draw and helped put Netflix’s originals on the map.
It was a jolting and refreshing change to have a show that not only avoided TV’s typical tropes — one black friend or one Hispanic detective in a given ensemble — but portrayed a varied group of Hispanic, Asian, African-American and white characters with an enormous array of personalities, backgrounds and agendas. Not every critic and viewer loved every storyline, but it was as if, after ignoring issues of race and especially women of color for decades, TV was finally trying to make up for lost time.
Since the 2013 premiere of “Orange,” the amount of television being made has exploded — partly driven by the arrival of Amazon, Hulu and Netflix as serious players in the scripted-TV game. And there’s been a concurrent uptick in the number of shows willing to take on race and employ casts that reflect the demographic reality of America, the population of which is almost 40% nonwhite. No one would argue that the TV industry, which is still predominantly white, has arrived at a place of true inclusion. But there is a growing awareness that TV needs to have more writers, creators and characters of color, and must expand the kinds of protagonists who get their stories told.
A new study from USC’s Annenberg School for Communications that examined TV programming for a one-year period ending Aug. 31, 2015, reveals that 72% of speaking or named characters were white, 12% black, 5.8% Hispanic/Latino, 5.1% Asian, 2.3% Middle Eastern and 3.1% other. This means that 28.3% of all speaking characters were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, well below such groups’ proportion of the U.S. population (37.9%). But the reception of the shows mentioned above (among others) demonstrates that there’s clearly an appetite for fresh voices.
“We’re in a new cycle,” says Laurence Fishburne, star and executive producer of “Black-ish.” “It really began with Shonda Rhimes’ work — that was the tip of the spear.”
“It doesn’t feel like the dam has broken, but it feels like it’s breaking now,” says Michael Schur, executive producer of “Master of None,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Parks and Recreation” and the upcoming NBC comedy “Good Place.” “The reason if feels like it’s breaking is because it’s not just white people writing about race.”
As Schur notes, characters of color on TV are no longer just day-player judges who say “I’ll allow it.”
“Now what you have are lead characters and whole families that are complex, flawed and kind of terrible sometimes and different from each other and funny and stupid, and all of the things that white people have been able to be on TV forever,” Schur adds.
Even as the TV industry cracked the door open ever so slightly to people of color as stars and creators, videos of black men and women dying at the hands of the police have put race at the forefront of the national agenda. In the past few years, a new generation of activists, journalists and concerned citizens have brought renewed urgency to the discussion surrounding African-Americans, police brutality and the systematic denial of opportunity. The rise of social media has made those conversations impossible to ignore.
In particular, videos of police brutality have gotten white people to see what many black people have known all along, says Nina Jacobson, executive producer of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” “It moves the conversation out of the shadows. At least that’s a step forward, but at the same time, what is coming out of the shadows is deeply troubling and sobering,” Jacobson adds.
When it comes to the Simpson saga and its continuing relevance to American life, “I think there are two tragedies,” says Courtney B. Vance, who plays defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran in the drama. “There’s tragedy number one — Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpsons were brutally murdered. The other one is, we’re still dealing with every day men of color are being beaten and shot. There’s a disconnect there. I don’t think we’ve adequately understood how important race is.”
“The People v. O.J. Simpson” does not diminish the tragic aspects of the Simpson saga, but it has handled the many complexities of the case in ways that have drawn the praise of critics and the attention of viewers. The Feb. 2 debut was FX’s highest-rated premiere ever, garnering 12 million viewers in its first three airings, a number that may speak to a pent-up desire to have more forceful conversations about race in America.
The fuel of any comedy or drama is conflict, but for years, TV didn’t bother to tap into the rich vein of material that comes from being black or brown in America — in large part because most TV creators and directors are white men.
“I really wanted to do a show about being the black guy in the writers’ room,” says Kenya Barris of the ABC sitcom he created, “Black-ish.” “The things that are said if you’re the only woman or you’re the only black guy or you’re the only heavyset person — the s—t that you hear sometimes is out of this world.” (For more on “Black-ish,” see this feature.)
Barris changed the dynamics to a degree — the comedy is mostly centered on Dre and Rainbow Johnson’s home — but he kept the “black guy in a white workplace” concept. In every episode, Dre (Anthony Anderson) consults his ad-agency colleagues, and in those meetings, he is usually either the only black person or one of two African-Americans present. Barris and his writers have wrung an admirable number of pointed jokes from the way the white and black characters talk past each other and cheerfully treat Dre with a combination of condescension, friendly obliviousness and needy insecurity (everyone wants Dre to be their token black friend).
Perhaps it’s not surprising that those regarded as outsiders — men and women of color, white women and gay men and women — are often the ones running or starring in shows that are the most forthright and bold when it comes to matters of race, class, sexuality and gender. Like Barris, these artists have raw material to spare.
In its first season, “Jane the Virgin” put an #immigrationreform hashtag on the screen, and this season, it has deftly folded in the undocumented immigrant status of Jane grandmother, Alba Villanueva, played by Ivonne Coll, into its ongoing narrative. “Empire’s” second-season premiere featured a rally that referred to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Fresh Off the Boat” jokes about the weirdness of suburban life in Orlando, especially “white-people food.” One of the core characters on “Quantico” is a Muslim woman who wears a hijab.
Most of the shows in this current wave of racially aware comedies and dramas don’t spend a single episode “solving” a difficult problem, and certainly “Black-ish’s” Feb. 24 episode, which focuses on police brutality, does not try to be as tidy as Very Special Episodes of decades past. “Black-ish” allows characters to have differences of opinion, says Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Rainbow Johnson. “Even hurt feeling are had,” she says.
Frustration drove the “Master of None” episode “Indians on TV,” which reflected the creators’ anger about the ugly Asian stereotypes that have littered the pop culture landscape for decades. And yet, Yang says, there was no attempt to come up with a unified theme for characters’ responses. “We didn’t want to boil it all down to a message — ‘This is the lesson you should learn,’ ” Yang says. “We wanted it more to be like, ‘This is a discussion.’ ”
That’s a point on which “Black-ish” writer and exec producer Kenya Barris agrees. “You don’t ever want to do important TV, you just want to do good TV,” he notes.
“The funny that we find comes from the stride of Dre or the rhythm of Pops or the boldness of Diane or the innocence of Miles or the apathy of Zoey,” adds Barris. For him, creating a sitcom in which characters are studiously bland or intentionally inoffensive was never an option. “My take on it is, when you try to appeal to anyone you appeal to almost no one.”
ABC was a little nervous about a Season 1 storyline about corporal punishment, but that episode ended up being a turning point for the show, according to Barris. Once executives understood that the show would run any hot-button issue through an array of viewpoints, they became more comfortable with the idea of “Black-ish” diving into controversial topics.
Doing so — as “Black-ish” did when it took on the N-word or guns in the home — has only gotten the show more attention in a very crowded marketplace.
“When Kenya and I sat down and conceived the show and talked about the landscape of television and the things that we wanted to accomplish, at the very top of our list was — the next day, we want to be the watercooler conversation at work, at church or wherever,” says Anderson. “We’re going to be provocative. We pride ourselves on dealing with divisive topics so people can come together and just sit at the table and give their point of view.”
To speak about controversial topics with honesty, specificity and boldness requires the kind of familiarity that comes from experience. “One thing that people are responding to with our show is that it’s partially about an Indian guy and an Asian guy, and it’s written and produced by an Indian guy and an Asian guy,” Yang says. “That’s why it feels real. All those conversations around dinner tables that we depict in the show are conversations that we’ve had with our friends, and that’s what our friends look like.”
It’s safe to say that most writers rooms don’t look like Dev and Brian’s multiracial posse. According to the WGA’s most recent study, representation of women and minorities on writing staffs — which have never been reflective of American demographics — actually decreased in the 2013-14 season.
In the years since the O.J. saga and the Anita Hill hearings — another charged moment from the ‘90s that will be revisited in the upcoming HBO movie “Confirmation” — America has evolved in some ways, yet many fundamental problems remain. As Jacobson puts it, “What we’re allowed to say out loud has changed, but the underlying issues have not changed very much.”
“There’s an argument that says we have done better, but then we want to give each other a pat on the back and jump to these conclusions like, ‘Oh, racism isn’t what it was,’” says Sterling K. Brown, who plays Christopher Darden in FX’s O.J. Simpson drama. “I hope people will recognize that it’s something that this country will have to deal with in perpetuity.”
In the current moment, however, no one can claim that “Empire,” “Master of None” and “Scandal” were bad investments — and TV loves nothing more than chasing success.
“I believe networks are generally pretty good at figuring out how to make things that people actually want to see,” Schur says. “More and more in America, the consumer-driven need is to see these kinds of stories being told from different points of view.”
And as TV matures, it can’t keep returning to the same wells it has continually tapped in the past. As Schur notes, “There’s much more new and interesting to say about, say, the Taiwanese-American experience in America than there is about the white experience in America.”
Of course, the majority of comedies and dramas are not necessarily taking on these issues in a sustained way, but it’s undeniable that, at the moment, a number of notable TV writers and creators are deeply interested in matters of race, racism, bias and erasure. But awareness of these issues has crested in the past, only for that interest to evaporate.
Different networks have created rosters with shows about black men and women in years past, but after a while, they would “start replacing those shows with ‘mainstream’ programming,” Barris notes. “It’s a fact. It’s not a conspiracy. It happened with Fox. It happened with the WB. It happened with UPN.”
“Usually these cycles go on for about seven years,” notes Fishburne. “I just finished doing a new ‘Roots.’”
But will this current wave of awareness last? When asked that question on the set of “Black-ish,” Fishburne pauses for several seconds before answering.
“People are aware when they’re not being represented,” he says. “That awareness has always been there. What hasn’t always been there is the will to share the storytelling space. … There’s always a need for stories to be told from many different perspectives, and I think that won’t change.”
Regardless of what the industry does or doesn’t do, Barris, a fan of Norman Lear, sees his show as part of an enduring tradition in American culture.
“I think that the honesty makes us more American, in some way, because I feel like the America we should be ashamed of is the America that ignores the truth,” Barris says. “It’s all a part of what makes the layer cake of America. The ugliness, the prettiness, all of it — you have to look at it as a whole.”
For a podcast conversation with “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, check out the Talking TV site, which also has podcasts featuring the cast of “Black-ish”, as well as conversations with Alan Yang and Michael Schur from “Master of None.” Podcasts are also available via iTunes.