HERE’S A NOVEL THOUGHT: Before the NAACP launches another campaign against television’s perceived ills, would it set the cause back to pause and savor the group’s recent victories?
Apparently so. Because after fatuously contending that Michael Richards’ comedy club tirade is “a symptom of a much bigger problem” and emblematic of “an underlying current of racism in America,” the NAACP scheduled, then canceled, an event this week to assail the TV industry for insufficient minority representation.
Certainly, TV still exhibits its share of shortcomings regarding race, but the NAACP chose a dubious time to level such criticism against television, coming in the midst of a very good fall for people of color based on those symbolic measures where the medium ultimately wields the greatest influence.
Such calculations are invariably subjective, but the two breakout stars of the new TV season are “Ugly Betty’s” America Ferrara, who is Hispanic; and “Heroes'” Masi Oka, who is Asian. My third choice would be Lennie James, the black Brit who is the most mysterious character on CBS’ “Jericho.”
NBC’s restored Thursday comedy lineup, meanwhile — once attacked for lily-white casts on New York-set shows like “Friends” and “Seinfeld” — now showcases diversity on “My Name Is Earl,” “Scrubs” and “30 Rock.” As for “The Office,” that series not only boasts a multi-cultural cast but has brilliantly lampooned racism, as it did last week when an African-American employee was revealed to have done time as a white-collar criminal.
Some programs have also gone global, a la “Heroes,” featuring natives of India and Japan. That’s especially noteworthy given the narrow view U.S. television has historically assumed looking beyond its borders.
THE NAACP has singled out low employment levels within TV’s executive and producing ranks as its next potential crusade, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson pithily lambasted news for being “all day, all night, all white.”
Whatever the raw numerical data, though, once again, the symbolic advances are hard to overlook. As a prime example, consider producer Shonda Rhimes, an African-American, who presides over TV’s hottest series in “Grey’s Anatomy” — a program that effortlessly displays a thoroughly diverse universe.
Hiring levels are of understandable concern to those pursuing jobs within the industry, but evaluating minority gains requires a more contextual analysis. In the past, equal attention has been paid to the separate question of onscreen imagery, recognizing that while the industry directly employs thousands, from a cultural perspective its product is watched by tens of millions.
Because there are never enough entertainment jobs to go around, the business’s insular nature makes breaking down barriers difficult — one of the hard realities of any closely knit club where merit can be subjective, and nepotism and connections frequently dictate who receives keys to the kingdom. As a consequence, the NAACP and other lobbying organs have every reason to keep reminding industry honchos to cast a wider net than the children of golf buddies and those they encounter at private-school PTA meetings.
Lobbying groups diminish their moral authority, however, when they appear unwilling to acknowledge when real strides are made, including those programs that convey messages about our ability to live and work together.
THERE IS ALSO HARM done by overreaching to generalize an incident such as the Richards episode. Beyond proving that the former “Seinfeld” co-star engaged in an ugly moment worthy of condemnation, seizing upon those slurs as evidence of an “underlying current” of racism in Hollywood or anywhere else makes as much sense as suggesting that Mel Gibson’s drunken rant against Jews is proof of anti-Semitism among action stars or Australians. Nor does it bolster anyone’s credibility, frankly, when cash settlements magically help soothe any wounded feelings among the aggrieved parties.
By exaggerating the significance of transgressions and turning a blind eye to progress, the NAACP risks doing a disservice to its legitimate gripes — among them the occasionally distasteful depictions of minorities, through the wonders of editing, within reality TV.
In terms of symbolism, those programs warrant discussion, precisely because the portrayals are often the opposite of “Ugly Betty” and “Heroes” — series that, in the best sense, represent genuine advancements within TV toward people of color.