Watching “Star Trek” as a child sent a message to a young Dr. Mae Jemison that she could be an astronaut. Jemison, whose 1992 expedition on the space shuttle Endeavour made her the first black woman in the world to travel into space, has loved science ever since she was little. And this show made her passion about it — her parents were also scientists — just that much cooler. “Star Trek” was fiction but the color of Nyota Uhura’s (played by actress Nichelle Nichols) skin looked just like Jemison’s and that was very real.
“‘Star Trek’ showed us a future that was viable after we made it through the foolishness of the 1960s and included all the people on Earth,” Jemison says. “And it showed me and other kids like me a very hopeful future where we had evolved to get rid of some of our petty differences.”
Ever since Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” premiered in 1966, science fiction and fantasy have long been more inclusive and representative when it came to people of different races. Just look at the world of “Star Wars” and new hit shows like Disney-plus’ “The Mandalorian.” Over at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, movies such as “Black Panther,” which grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, not only proved that audiences were hungry for stories about black superheroes but that such pursuits can be ridiculously lucrative. This may be one of the reasons that at the end of “Avengers: Endgame,” Captain America (played by white actor Chris Evans) passed on his shield to Falcon (black actor Anthony Mackie). Mackie and Sebastian Stan will star in Disney Plus series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
Thankfully for audiences who want to see themselves reflected onscreen, the “passing of the shield” has moved beyond fantasy and into comedies and dramas. “Bad Boys for Life,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, recently rocked the B.O. with a weekend take of $73 million, while the South Korean drama “Parasite” has made more than $100 million worldwide. The “Jumanji,” “The Fast and the Furious” and “Star Wars” franchises all feature African-Americans, Latinx and Asians. The list includes Freeform’s newly rebooted “Party of Five.” The updated series spotlights the Acosta siblings, whose parents are deported back to Mexico. The original focused on the Salinger children, a Caucasian brood whose parents died in a car crash. The reboot premiered in early January with a 96% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“At Freeform, authentic casting is essential,” says Tom Ascheim, the cable network’s president. “Of course authenticity is always good for business. But in addition, since our audience of young adults comprises the world’s most diverse generation, as storytellers we must provide them with stories and entertainment that reflect their world. With ‘Party of Five,’ we’re telling a story of a Mexican-American family that many families can relate to, from their circumstances to their customs. And we’re lucky to have a group of remarkable, and diversely Latino actors, who bring their own authenticity and perspective to their characters. Without this genuine representation, we’re not doing our audience justice.”
Amy Lippman co-created the 1994 version of “Party of Five” and has returned to executive produce the updated series. Like Ascheim, Lippman says there is value in re-examining this story through a more modern lens.
“This is a much better idea than the original,” she told journalists at a recent Television Critic Assn. winter press tour panel. “When we looked at the Salinger family in the 1990s, they were having an experience that was unique and their own and others couldn’t relate to it. This is an experience that’s not unique to them: It’s happening across the country.
“We have an opportunity to look at these kids as kids growing up and learning things about themselves in an extraordinary situation,” Lippman adds. “I wish it was less extraordinary.”
Netflix also tapped into the Latinx experience with the re-imagined sitcom “One Day at a Time.” The original, which aired from 1975-84, followed a white, divorced mom raising two daughters. But the updated take follows a Cuban American family with a divorced mom (Justina Machado) who lives with her mother (played by EGOT Rita Moreno), and teen daughter and son.
The thoughtful comedy and has explored everything from immigration to religion. Netflix canceled the show after three seasons last year, but a few months later, Pop TV network picked it up; its fourth season premieres March 24.
“The enthusiastic response from fans since announcing our new season of ‘One Day at a Time’ has been thrilling,” says Brad Schwartz, Pop TV’s president. “The series is more important than ever with its unmatched ability to tackle topical social issues through the lens of a relatable, loving family.”
TV legend Norman Lear created and executive produced the original “One Day at a Time,” and is an EP on the reboot as well. “Thank you to my producing partner, Brent Miller, our incredibly talented co-showrunners, Mike Royce and Gloria Calderón Kellett, and of course, Sony, for never once giving up on the show, our actors or the possibility that a cable network could finally save a cancelled series that originated on a streaming service,” Lear said in a prepared statement. “And one last thank you to, Pop, for having the guts to be that first cable network.”
Sometimes diverse casting can be a trend that sticks around because it makes the most sense. Take NBC’s procedural drama “Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector.” In the 1997 Jeffrey Deaver novel “The Bone Collector,” Lincoln Rhyme is white. But two years later, when the book inspired a big-screen adaptation, Denzel Washington took on the role. Now, on the TV show, inspired by Deaver’s novels and the movie, Russell Hornsby (“The Hate U Give” and “Grimm”) is playing the title role.
“We wanted the best actor for the role, and we definitely believe we got him in Russell, and we are really, really blessed that he committed to doing the show,” says Peter Traugott, an executive producer on the series. “We pursued him fairly early on in the process and it took a bit of time, as it should for someone who has a lot of options. And we feel like we came out ahead as a result of that.”
Hornsby, who studied Shakespearean acting at Boston University and Oxford University, says he is enjoying the opportunity to finally star as the leading man.
“Five years ago, 10 years ago even, I wasn’t ready for this role. I wasn’t prepared for it,” Hornsby says. “But because of my experience, because of the work I’ve done in the past leading up to this, I have a lot more to offer and a lot more to give and just more texture and more nuance that I can lend to the character.”
Adds “Bone Collector” executive producer Barry O’Brien, “Russell mentioned Shakespearean training, and we feel the power of that every day. He commands a room with his voice and his eyes. It’s such craft.”
As for Jemison, the retired astronaut enjoyed a 1993 guest turn on “Star Trek: Next Generation” and has consulted and appeared on shows such as National Geographic’s “One Strange Rock.” She says inclusion is a conversation worth having and a practice worth incorporating.
“I was working on a project in 2006 and found that there are actually more real women in aviation and aerospace than I could find in movies and television,” Jemison says. “We still have work to do. So many people love science fiction and space. How do we make it accessible and include more people?”