Nets roll out a substantial number of new fall shows — like Jane the Virgin and Black-ish — which more closely reflect America's growing diversity.
It’s been 15 years since headlines trumpeted the great American ‘whitewash’ of 1999.
Big broadcast TV networks released a slate of new fall shows that year with casts virtually devoid of a single person of color, drawing strong criticism from Latino, African-American and more community organizations.
Fast forward to 2014.
Since American broadcasters rolled out this year's fall slate, television critics have been awash with praise for programming executives for compiling one of the most diverse on-screen slates in over a decade. As Backstage notes, the 2014-15 season may turn out to be a "watershed moment" for actors of color on domestic television.
One the most promising of the new shows — The CW’s Jane the Virgin — stars Puerto Rican-American actress Gina Rodriguez in the title role and features a predominately Latino ensemble cast.
Based on the Venezuelan telenovela, Jane the Virgin had all the cringe-worthy makings of an adaptation waiting to go wrong: a young, still-virginal school teacher accidentally knocked-up with a last specimen of her handsome, rich boss by a whacked-out gynecologist (who happens to be the boss’s lesbian sister).
And yet, as TV critic Daniel Feinberg of Hitfix.com summed up in his early review of the pilot, showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman’s script unfolds “with an amusing (if unlikely) rhythm of farcical cause-and-effect.”
The words “charming,” “sweet” and “highly watchable” were just a few phrases bandied about by critics at this year’s summer TV press tour.
“I wanted it to sort of have a fairy tale, whimsical quality,” Snyder, a former co-producer on The CW’s Gilmore Girls told journalists.
“I sort of try to describe it as somewhere between Ugly Betty meets Gilmore Girls because the mother-daughter-grandmother relationship was so central in that show, and I just was a huge fan of that show before I got to write on it. So to me it’s that sort of, the two of them together, is that strange mark I’m trying to hit.”
Considering it’s been eight years since the premiere of Ugly Betty, it seems long overdue for anyone on television to try to capitalize on the fervor of that ABC hit. For her part, Rodriguez, a Sundance favorite in 2012 for her starring role in the Yosseft Delara-Michael D. Olmos indie-film, Filly Brown, has “waited patiently for Jane.”
“I found it limiting for the stories that Latinos have,” said Rodriguez, a Chicago native, who turned down Devious Maids because she felt the image played into long-held stereotypes audiences have of Latinos in America.
“I never saw myself on screen. I have two older sisters: one’s an investment banker, the other one is a doctor, and I never saw us being played as investment bankers and doctors. And I realize how limiting that was for me.”
And you definitely didn’t see any hardcore, sports-loving Latinas who are also aspiring attorneys like Cristela Alonzo, whose self-titled comedy series, Cristela, premieres this fall on ABC.
“I love basketball. I love football,” Alonzo told critics. “And to me, I think that’s a dimension that you don’t see with a lot of female leads especially. I have a genuine love for it, and to me, I always thought it was very interesting to show that side of me.”
When asked later about being the first Latina to executive produce and star in her own comedy series, Alonzo conceded that she had almost given up hope it would ever happen at all.
“I’m the first one, but it’s still so early so I don’t know what’s going to happen with the show,” she told TelevisionAcademy.com. “I want this show to be successful so that future generations have an easier time to get a show on the air."
"Having a Latino family on TV shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is," Alonzo continued, "and we have to get to a point where it’s not a big deal.”
Still, as the country continues to be increasingly racially and culturally varied, talk of diversity remains a peculiar topic for network executives.
Critics questioned CBS chairman Nina Tassler during a recent summer press conference about the lack of non-white stars in the new season of CBS comedies. NPR critic Eric Deggans pushed further about the network’s dramas, and, in particular, struggling summer series Extant, which stars Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry. While Berry is bi-racial, he noted, her artificial son is played by a white actor on the series and the program features no other characters of color.
The reality, however, Tassler said, is that her team looks at "making the best choices, hiring the best actors" for a particular job. “If we don’t get the level of diversity we’re happy with going into the fall," she continued, "we look for every opportunity through the course of the entire year to add it.”
She offered, as an example, a casting choice for the network’s 2015 miniseries The Dovekeepers, an adaptation of the Alice Hoffman novel set in ancient Israel.
“We have Cote de Pablo (the Chilean-American actress and former NCIS star) who is starring in one of the leads of the show,” Tassler said. “So that was an opportunity for us to say, look, we didn’t get the level of diversity in some of the fall shows, but let’s make a big statement and cast Cote in our event series.”
For their part, Fox stepped to the plate with the culturally-rich cast of Red Band Society, starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, and is gearing up for the 2015 debut of Empire, a new drama created by Oscar nominee Lee Daniels (Lee Daniels' The Butler, Precious) and Emmy Award winner Danny Strong (Game Change, Lee Daniels' The Butler).
Empire finds screen star Terrence Howard portraying a recording industry mogul whose three sons and ex-wife — played by Howard's Hustle and Flow costar and Emmy nominee Taraji P. Henson — all vie for control of his wealth.
ABC is off to a strong fall start with Oscar-nominee Viola Davis leading How To Get Away With Murder on the network's Shondaland-driven Thank God It's Thursday #TGIT programming block. The series broke DVR live-plus-three day playback ratings records, boosting the premiere's 14.3 million viewers to more than 20 million.
And the net cast John Cho (Sleepy Hollow, Harold & Kumar, Star Trek, American Pie) in the leading man role on sitcom Selfie — a rare opportunity for an Asian-American actor, who like so many before him, has had to rise above 'sidekick' and other pervasive stereotypes.
Plus, stars Anthony Anderson (The Departed, Law & Order, Barbershop), Tracee Ellis Ross (Girlfriends), Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne and castmastes enjoyed a high-rating premiere for their ABC family comedy Black-ish — the title of which initially rose red flags on its Facebook page, mostly among African Americans.
“I think people were thinking [that by] saying ‘black-ish’ that we’re trying to define blackness, and we’re not,” creator-showrunner Kenya Burris told TelevisionAcademy.com.
In the series, Anderson portrays an upper-middle class father who fears his children have lost their connection with their heritage and is searching to strike the best balance at home — a very American situation in which many families who have roots in other countries and cultures find themselves.
“We have so many people from so many groups, immigrant groups and different ethnic identities who can relate to this," said Larry Wilmore, Emmy-winning television producer, co-creator of The Bernie Mac Show and host of forthcoming series Minority Report. Wilmore served as an executive producer on Black-ish before Jon Stewart and Comedy Central tapped him to follow The Daily Show after Stephen Colbert vacates the 11:30 p.m. slot.
Parents of all these different groups across the nation worry that when their kids "assimilate," Wilmore noted, "something is lost in their own culture.”
“It’s a very universal thing," he continued, "and we love the idea that Black-ish is our particular way of getting into it.”