As the national conversation changed dramatically in the past four years, centering the importance of amplifying underrepresented voices and cultures, it altered the context of pop culture, as well. Many unscripted programs rose to the challenge by continuously casting more inclusively — whether it be a particular season’s contestants, episode-specific subjects or series-long hosts. Through these players, the shows are able to shine an international spotlight on the immigrant experience, racial divides, prejudices and concerns of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“From the beginning it was of the utmost importance to us to show the diversity within this country and in small towns,” says Johnnie Ingram, executive producer of HBO’s “We’re Here.”
The series, which nabbed a coveted unstructured reality program Emmy nom for its first season this year, follows three drag queens — DJ “Shangela” Pierce, Eureka O’Hara and Bob the Drag Queen — as they seek out the local LGBTQIA+ community and allies, adopt drag daughters and stage a show — all in small, rural towns across the country.
“A drag show realistically is not changing lives, but it’s opening conversations, and it’s being visible in places where you’d normally be asked to not be visible or to not talk openly about your sexuality or gender preferences,” says executive producer Steve Warren.
Starting conversations is why they welcomed a wide variety of people onto the show — from gay men and women to a trans man to the indigenous queer community in New Mexico and cisgender, straight men alike. (The show’s theme song, “I Am America,” was co-written by a trans woman, Shea Diamond.) The goal was to open hearts and minds, and it wasn’t just the locals who were changed.
“I officially have no more working tear ducts,” says Shangela. The show “inspired me in seeing all these amazing, brave, courageous children that I worked with. I said, ‘You know what? I want to have greater purpose.’”
(After the pandemic shut down venues around the country, Shangela launched the Feed the Queens program with the Actors Fund to help out-of-work drag performers with grocery bills.)
Like “We’re Here,” Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” a two-time winner in the structured program category seeing its third consecutive nom now, endeavors to open its heroes’ up to transformative experiences and conversations.
“I don’t want to have a heavy-handed agenda,” says “Queer Eye” executive producer Jennifer Lane. “We get to experience the world’s most confounding issues through the stories of the heroes so it doesn’t feel like that heavy-handed opinionated news that we’re all so sick of. It becomes somebody’s real life story so we’re on a journey with them.”
Mining the diversity around the country is a priority for “Queer Eye,” as well, not just to reflect the world, but also “to explore and see where we can grow too,” Lane says. “Any show is facing not being derivative of itself, and by finding cities that are rich in culture it really helps us expand.”
Long-time Bravo competition program (and entry onto that Emmy ballot) “Top Chef” also travels to a different city each season, but it doesn’t strictly cast local chefs, which offers the opportunity to include a wider array of cooks and their cuisines.
“We always had diverse casts, with men and women represented equally,” says Tom Colicchio, co-host and executive producer, “Top Chef.” “But can we do better? Sure, we can do better.”
“Top Chef” co-host and executive producer Padma Lakshmi notes that “food is a great instrument for bringing people together. Most people learn about another culture through food.” So the program brings additional inclusivity through “a challenge around an issue” in each season, adds Colicchio. The most recent season, which was set in Los Angeles, featured environmental sustainability and the rich immigrant food experience in the city. L.A. native Melissa King tapped into her Chinese heritage in dishes and ultimately won the title.
This eye toward expanding the people and experiences the genre can reflect has led to some notable firsts this year, as well: Two-time competition program Emmy winner (nominated in the category again), VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” cast its first-ever Iranian-American contestant, Jackie Cox, in the 12th season. (In one memorable runway performance, Cox donned a sequined hijab depicting the American flag to honor multiple parts of her heritage; during that same event, Cox also opened up on-screen about the discrimination her mom faced in the U.S.) Netflix’s “Love Is Blind,” a freshman reality dating series nominated in the structured program category, saw an interracial couple get married at the end of the season, after falling in love while isolated in pods and only allowed to talk to each other through a wall.
“It’s about how we connect as human beings,” says creator Chris Coelen. “It was really incredible to take everyone’s devices away and allow them to connect.”
And Nicole Byer, host of Netflix’s “Nailed It” became the first Black woman in the reality host category’s 13-year history to receive a nom.
“I truly feel like once somebody opens the door, the doors open for more people to have accessibility, so that maybe when people are looking for a host of a show they will be more inclusive with their pitches and who they’re thinking of,” Byer says. “I don’t think I’m doing anything amazing. I just think that maybe people’s minds will change — ‘Maybe we should be more inclusive. Why do we only have a bunch of white dudes in our pitch? We should pitch it to some Black women, some Indian women, Latinx people.’”
But not every show that ends up with a season telling stories about people of color and/or the LGBTQIA+ communities intentionally sets out to do so.
Netflix’s “Cheer” (nominated in the unstructured reality program category) took viewers through a season of the Navarro College cheer team trying to make it to an annual competition in Daytona, Fla. Although the college is set in small-town Texas, athletes come from all across the country to be a part of the acclaimed cheer team.
“If there’s a strong theme of inclusion in this series it’s because it’s what we found,” says executive producer and director Greg Whiteley.