Image credit: Brendan Smyth
“Instead of people coming in and seeing a Chinese face and going, ‘Huh?’… They see a white face and say, ‘Oh, hello white friend! I am comfortable!’” — Fresh Off the Boat, “Pilot”
In the first episode of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, a new fish-out-of-water sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family that moves from DC to suburban Orlando, patriarch Louis Huang (Randall Park) floats the idea of hiring a white greeter for the steakhouse he owns so white people will feel comfortable when they walk in and spot a familiar face. It’s a clueless, optimistic line that is played for laughs, and Park’s delivery is laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also a line that works on multiple levels, because it speaks volumes about the current television landscape and its irritating approach to diversity: Networks cater to white audiences by always promoting white faces — or trying to universalize the nonwhite narratives that they do have in an attempt at mass appeal — rather than taking chances on stories whose characters don’t superficially resemble the majority of their viewers.
Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian-American sitcom in 20 years, since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which ran for just one season (also on ABC) in 1994. The show is doing great in terms of both ratings (Episode 5, which aired February 17, had more viewers than Parks and Recreation and New Girl combined) and critical response — as are the other diverse freshman programs airing on major networks this season: ABC’s clever sitcoms Black-ish and Cristela, Fox’s infectious musical drama Empire, and The CW’s telenovela-inspired Jane the Virgin, which earned lead actress Gina Rodriguez a Golden Globe award.
With the overwhelming success of these new programs centered on nonwhite characters, it’s easy to wonder: Why didn’t this happen sooner? The answer is as simple to state as it is complicated to explain: Minority narratives have a hard time making it to network television and an even harder time staying there.
What makes this even more frustrating is that once these programs manage to get on the air, they tend to do very well in ratings and among critics but face extra challenges in achieving longevity. The networks’ loyalty to these programs is always in question, because history has shown executives aren’t fully committed to diverse shows for their own sake, instead relying on them for quick monetary gain or a temporary influx of viewers. And this is especially disappointing in light of fans’ love for these shows — just take a quick glance at your Twitter timeline during Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday takeover (Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder are inescapable) or when Empire airs on Wednesday, blowing up the trending topics before the episode even begins. There is even an ongoing joke, largely on Black Twitter, about how Black-ish and Empire are on at the same time, forcing us to choose.
Outside of audience enthusiasm, these shows are flourishing in terms of sheer popularity. Fresh Off the Boat‘s ratings increased 12 percent between Episodes 4 and 5 (and did especially well with teenagers). Empire’s ratings have increased with every episode since its premiere, for eight straight weeks, breaking Nielsen (and DVR) records. Cristela has been praised by critics and performs solidly in the Friday-night death slot (where it’s paired with conservative Tim Allen comedy Last Man Standing; the shows will even air a crossover episode this season). Black-ish not only debuted to great ratings but has also managed to hold its own in the coveted post-Modern Family time slot — a feat that is even more impressive when you note the vast number of shows that haven’t survived there: Mixology, How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life), Super Fun Night, and Mr. Sunshine were all canceled within one season; Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 got axed after the two, finishing its second season on Hulu; and Cougar Town eventually switched to TBS. These shows were, like most network series, largely white.
Some critics, culture writers, and network executives seem baffled by these new, diverse shows’ – and particularly ratings juggernaut Empire’s — success: Who knew that they would perform so well? Who knew that white viewers would occasionally watch and enjoy programs with diverse casts? Who knew that minority audiences seek out minority narratives?
This season it became painfully clear that there is a severe disconnect between — largely white — TV executives and us minority audiences. The fact that there is surprise about Empire or Black-ish’s success is almost offensive; of course these are shows that we wanted and shows that we will watch — we just never had them before. The thirst for representation is so strong that often we will latch on to any program that promotes diversity, even if it’s not that great; Shonda Rhimes’ first show, Grey’s Anatomy, has lost its shine, but fans continue to tune in to the current, 11th season to see black, Latino, and Asian medical professionals portrayed on screen. We just happened to luck out in that the shows being touted this season are actually good.
Naturally, there’s been a lot of praise for the diversity of this season’s TV narratives — even if that praise fails to take into account what a small percentage of programming these shows actually comprise. But this isn’t the first time a “boom” in diversity has occurred on television. Robin R. Means Coleman, an associate professor and the author of African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy, is quick to dismiss the notion that this is a groundbreaking year for minority-focused narratives, explaining that representation on TV is follows a cyclical pattern. “About every 20 years, there is a surge in representations of blacks on television,” Coleman says. “In the ‘70s, there was a particular surge of blacks and black situation comedies: everything from Good Times and The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son — those kind of representations were being offered up.”
“In the ‘80s, you see a bit of an ebb in representations,” she continues. But “then they come back with significant quantity — not always quality — in the ‘90s and that’s what really sparked UPN and WB. You’ve got just dozens of black situation comedies that are being offered up in the ‘90s. The upstart networks are offering up these shows that are really inexpensive and hailing to specific audiences.”
Coleman is referring to all of the television shows of my childhood — I spent so much of the ‘90s glued to UPN that I feel a pang when she first mentions the network. There was In the House (1996-1999), rescued from NBC after the ’95 season, a sitcom starring LL Cool J (LL Cool J!) as a former football player who rents out his house to a divorced mother and her children; Malcolm and Eddie (1996-2000), an Odd Couple-like sitcom starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner from The Cosby Show and Eddie Griffin; Homeboys in Outer Space (1996-1997), which was a black parody of Star Trek; Goode Behavior (1996-1997), a comedy where the main draw was star Sherman Hemsley from The Jeffersons; and, of course, Moesha (1996-2001), which starred R&B singer Brandy and became the network’s biggest success, effectively launching a string of black sitcoms. The show’s impact is chronicled in Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton’s exhaustive 2007 book Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise & Fall of the WB and UPN:
Once Moesha hit in early 1996, UPN went headlong into the urban-ethnic comedy business. The network that bulled itself as “dramatically different” in its first full season, in 1995-96, with no half-hours on its three-night schedule, wound up stacking its 1996-97 season lineup with six urban-skewing comedy series, four on Monday and two on Tuesday. They were in the Moesha vein, meaning that they were built around personalities who rated highly with African American viewers.
Despite Moesha’s popularity with viewers, UPN was met with controversy at the Television Critics Association in 1996, with critics wondering if the network was actively trying to appeal to an urban audience (implying that it shouldn’t) and using terms like “ghettoizing” in reference to its new schedule. What these detractors failed to realize was how important those shows were to minority viewers. (They attracted white audiences as well; Coleman tells me that one of the specific audiences these shows were created to reach was “particularly [white] young men” who are interested in “comedies that had some connection to hip-hop culture — Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, for example.”) In fact, because I mostly watched UPN, WB (The Jamie Foxx Show, The Parent ‘Hood, Smart Guy, and Sister Sister, which had moved over from ABC), and Nickelodeon (My Brother and Me, Kenan & Kel) as a child, I was spoiled in the sense that I wasn’t fully aware that minorities were, well, also a minority on television.
Then, in the late ’90s, the tide of diverse television began to ebb again. Coleman explains that the shortage in minority narratives became “dire to the point that the NAACP, in ’99, launched a boycott against the big four networks [ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox] saying there’s a significantly poor representation [of minorities] both in front of and behind the camera.” By the early ‘00s, I was becoming more and more aware of how little I was seeing myself represented on television.
When the 2014-15 television season began, it was easy to characterize this as some groundbreaking year in which networks were finally coming to their senses about diverse programming. (This, despite the fact that the results of this so-called boom still seem slight when compared to the dozens of diverse shows that existed in the ‘90s, even though there were so many fewer original programs 20 years ago. The Wrap’s recent article, “Black Is the New Black,” oddly cites two shows about white families — The Goldbergs and The McCarthys — as examples of TV’s new diversity, perhaps because the author ran out of ideas.) In reality, these shows more likely represent the beginning of a new cycle to correct the lack of diversity that has plagued networks in recent years: It’s been 19 years since UPN launched Moesha, after all.
The existence of this cycle is what makes it difficult to muster unreserved enthusiasm for TV’s new gestures towards diversity. The abundance of African-American comedies in the ‘90s had less to do with networks actively pursuing representation out of good faith than with networks in a slump desperately seeking shows that were cheap and guaranteed an audience. But, as Coleman explains, “Once [networks] get back on sure grounds, they abandon that kind of programming. That’s exactly what Fox, UPN, and WB did… Once they got their audience, they moved into, and funneled that money into, other programs — 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and those sort of things — and they built their network up for that.”
“There’s interesting analogies in all sorts of labor structures in the history of America about how things are built on the backs of blacks,” Coleman tells me, “and the television industry isn’t very different.” Networks are always concerned with money above all, and will use these minority narratives to get there. They aren’t actively concerned with gaining or maintaining any specific minority audience, as long as they’re able to draw a sizable audience of any variety. What will happen in, say, 2020, when networks have decided that they no longer need Black-ish or Empire? Will those shows even last that long?
This year’s new shows do have one advantage over their predecessors: their writers and producers can look to similar series from the last cycle to learn what it takes to succeed — and what to avoid so you don’t fail.
Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl was a notorious disaster and now serves as a master class on how not to make a minority-focused sitcom. Despite promoting it as a sitcom based on Cho’s stand-up, ABC effectively erased all of her comedy — and all of her uniqueness and ethnic specificity, instead creating a series that relied solely on stereotypes (the mother character was a typical “tiger mom” who tried to force her daughter to date successful Koreans), overdone and unoriginal sitcom plots (familial spats, dating woes), and uninspired parodies (of The Real World and Pulp Fiction). Amazingly, despite being a show about a Korean family, the cast only featured one Korean: Cho herself. Plagued with network notes, devastating criticism, and an immense amount of pressure to represent Asian Americans, Cho spiraled into depression, anorexia, and drug addiction, as detailed in her memoir I’m the One That I Want. All-American Girl was supposed to be groundbreaking, but instead proved that minority-centric shows need to be more nuanced and more careful than the average series, and find the proper balance between specific and universal storytelling. Fresh Off the Boat has already succeeded on all of these counts.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which aired on NBC from 1990 through 1996. Starring Will Smith as a fictionalized version of himself, the show ran for six successful seasons and still lives on in syndication. The show was a diverse hit (though it must be mentioned that it was created by a white duo: Andy and Susan Borowitz) and appealed to all audiences: black and white, young and old. Fresh Prince did a number of things right: It balanced universal appeal and black-specific plots (as Black-ish is pulling off), it included a range of black characters rather than pigeonholing them (similar to Jane the Virgin, which incorporates a variety of Latino characters who don’t fit stereotypes), and it aired a crossover episode with the white hit Blossom (like Cristela crossed over with Last Man Standing).
But the key was to base the show around a big-name rapper who already had legions of fans: Will Smith. As Coleman observed, young, white audiences are interested in hip-hop culture: Empire is a hip-hop drama with multiple musical interludes (and rumors of an upcoming tour), Black-ish uses hip-hop cues better than any other show on television, and Fresh Off the Boat centers on a young Asian boy (Hudson Yang) who is heavily influenced by hip-hop, identifying with the genre’s outsider point of view and favoring Public Enemy and Notorious B.I.G. T-shirts.
Though All-American Girl and Fresh Prince are virtually opposites (in terms of content, reception, and popularity), they both helped to inform the diverse shows that are currently on air. Fresh Prince showed how successful a program can be with a diverse cast as long as the target audience is clear, while All-American Girl, which was ordered when ABC was freely handing out deals to comedians, shows that it might be harder to keep a program on air than it is to get it there.
But it’s not just a matter of finding an audience. There’s also the substantial pressure put on diverse shows to be practically perfect. Sure, viewers and critics alike heavily scrutinize all new TV programs, but there is an additional burden on these programs in particular. There are so few minority images on television that all eyes are going to be fixed on any new ones that pop up — Asian Americans lined up to watch All-American Girl, but because the portrayal of Koreans was more stereotypical than original or refreshing, many of them changed the channel. Fresh Off the Boat has received a substantially warmer welcome from the Asian-American community.
Eric Haywood, a writer on Fox’s Empire, expands on this, telling me that while this pressure doesn’t determine what happens in the writers’ room, there is still “this underlying awareness that once this show gets on the air, it’s going to have to perform pretty extraordinarily well in order for it to be given the same consideration, as far as staying on the air, as a lot of the mainstream shows.” This is a sentiment I heard echoed by several creators of diverse TV series, who felt burdened with the tasks of both representing an entire group and providing a narrative that is exciting enough to compete with highly rated white programs. It’s an idea that reminds me of the more general sense among people of color that we have to perform extraordinarily just to be considered mediocre.
This theme is articulated elegantly in the Season 3 premiere of Scandal, when Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is being lectured by her father, Rowan (Joe Morton), and he reminds her of an important mantra:
Rowan: Did I not raise you for better? How many times have I told you? You have to be what?
Olivia: Twice as good. Rowan: Twice as good as them to get half of what they have.
This is the sort of pressure creators who are people of color, and who write programs about people of color, feel. Black-ish has to be twice as good as Modern Family in order to be mentioned in the same conversation; I can’t even do the math to figure out how good Black-ish has to be to win the Emmy over its white peers. It’s why these shows have to work harder, and it’s why viewers, to a certain extent, have our own responsibilities to them. We have to first show that there is a demand for these programs, then continue to demand that more exist, and then, finally, demand that each one is better than the last.
Empire’s Haywood is invested in this process as both a content creator (he’s also written for Private Practice and Soul Food) and a voracious consumer (fans should follow his Twitter account, where he regularly provides smart and funny insights on the TV he’s watching) — meaning that he wants success not only for the shows he works on but for other shows that promote minority representation. “I look at the ratings for Black-ish every single week because I love the show, and I want it to do well,” he says. “I don’t want ABC to have any excuse for not getting behind it 100 percent. I think if I wasn’t writing for Empire right now, I would have the exact same concern [for Empire].”
Eddie Huang, a producer for Fresh Off the Boat who also penned the memoir it was based on and provides the voice-over as an older version of the show’s Eddie, has been vocal about his experiences getting the show from paper to screen, the conflicts he’s had with the higher-ups, and his opinion of the finished product. Before his show premiered, we chatted about the importance of increasing representation on television and why we all need to put in effort to make sure these shows exist and survive. He told me, “At the end of the day, if our communities — communities of color, differences, sexual orientation, even just difference of thought — if we can develop market power, if we can somehow aggregate our voices and opinions, mobilize, and get people to support things monetarily, then we become more important. We are able to then participate or hedge against dominant culture.”
The question then becomes: How do we develop that market power if networks are still overly reliant on the dominant, white culture? Networks still have to sell shows that are specifically developed and catered to minority audiences — or, as Huang puts it, “what’s left over from people who watch The Big Bang Theory” — to a white audience for fear that they won’t last otherwise. It’s why networks tend to interfere heavily to ensure that these shows are still appealing to white viewers. It’s what we witnessed with All-American Girl, when ABC ignored the themes of Cho’s standup and focused more on the “American” generalizations (hey, they’re right there in the title!) than the Korean specifics. It’s why Fresh Off the Boat may sometimes feel unbalanced and why Black-ish repeatedly switches between trope-heavy family sitcom stories and smaller, black-centric shows; in my weekly coverage of the comedy, there is always a discussion of whether the series is playing the race card too often or too rarely. It’s a damned if you do/damned if you don’t situation for all of these shows.
When I ask Haywood if he worries about whether white audiences will embrace the shows he works on, he says that although he personally doesn’t, he believes that networks do. “[Networks] simultaneously want a show that feels different, but they don’t want it to be so different that it alienates the white audience,” he says. “And I’m certain that [with] predominately white shows, network executives are not concerned about making sure that their shows incorporate huge numbers of black, Latino, or Asian people. Whether it’s TV, music, or movies, there’s always this undercurrent — or not even an undercurrent; sometimes it’s very expressly slated: We want to make sure this has broad appeal. That’s basically coded language for, ‘We want to make sure that white people will watch.’ If white people don’t watch, for some reason, it is considered not quite as legitimate…. And that can get a little bit frustrating.”
This is a fairly universal struggle among creatives of color, not only in television but also when it comes to diversity in movies, books, and other forms of popular art. It’s an endless internal struggle between telling the story you want to tell and telling the story that you need to tell in order for the result to be deemed “successful” — and, as an added slap, to have that “success” determined solely by white audiences. One solution Eddie Huang suggests is to get those viewers early in the first season and bulk up the ratings so the show will be renewed, and then allow the writers freedom to provide more nuance in the second season. “I hope this show does well,” he says of Fresh Off the Boat, “but I hope that in Season 2, fans hold it even more responsible to the book or to this specific [Asian-American] experience.”
This leads to yet another question: If shows like Fresh Off the Boat are attempting a Trojan Horse approach to storytelling — emphasizing universal, relatable stories in Season 1 before getting specific in Season 2 — how do we ensure that they actually get to that second season? One solution for those who crave diverse television is, obviously, to watch them (Huang suggests putting on Fresh Off the Boat, Cristela, and Black-ish, or at least DVR-ing them and letting them play through, even if you don’t particularly like them). But the unfortunate truth is that no show is guaranteed immunity from cancellation, so maybe a second strategy for beating the dominant culture is to just go all-in in that first season and hope something sticks.
Jane the Virgin
The CW’s Jane the Virgin, for example, a comedy-drama about an accidentally-artificially-inseminated virgin that transcended its silly premise within the first episode, balances its telenovela sensibilities (secret affairs, murder, a big bad) with a surprising and well-written plot about immigration reform. This aspect of the show was hinted at earlier in the season but came to the forefront in the tenth episode, in which Jane’s grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) is hospitalized and then threatened with deportation when her undocumented status is found out. Jane the Virgin regularly uses voice-over and on-screen text to add to and comment on its plot, and this episode is no different. Viewers read the words, “Yes, this really happens. Look it up. #ImmigrationReform.”
Not only does this illustrate how some diverse shows are seemingly going for broke by saying what they need to say while they have the opportunity, but it also proves why we need these sort of shows: Where else on TV are we going to find a careful, honest, and accurate depiction of the problems that immigrants face? Jane the Virgin isn’t the only first-year program using this strategy: How to Get Away With Murder, part of Rhimes’ Shondaland family, is tackling the intricacies and complexities of black women’s lives, with highlights ranging from the moment when Annalise (Viola Davis) bared her natural hair to the complicated and fraught relationship between black women and our mothers. Meanwhile, Fresh off the Boat tackled the slur “chink” in its very first episode, Empire is going hard on the topic of homophobia in hip-hop, and Black-ish explores what it means to be black, privileged, and unaware of society’s racism. These are the stories that you can’t find in the average CBS sitcom or NBC drama, whether they feature token nonwhite characters or not.
Though these new shows are currently thriving, their collective future may not be as bright as it seems. Empire, Jane the Virgin, and How to Get Away With Murder have been renewed for a second season, but the others haven’t yet. And while I am optimistic that the other diverse freshman programs will return next year, it’s hard to hold on to that optimism when thinking further into the future. If we are, as both Robin R. Means Coleman and I suspect, just in the midst of another “diversity boom,” then it’s only a matter of time before networks cast these projects aside and go back to the white model that they’re used to.
There’s a more promising way of looking at the situation, too, though: The particular programs that debuted this year don’t necessarily fit the model of previous booms. Black-ish, Cristela, and Fresh Off the Boat aren’t lazy, disposable sitcoms (and only Cristela is multi-camera); they’re comedies that have a deeper, underlying aim to explore minority identities. It’s also notable that some of these newer shows are dramas, because for a long time it seemed blacks could only star in sitcoms — the racial implications of the “clown” character are strong — or, to a lesser extent, as side characters ensemble dramas.
But perhaps it’s the creators themselves who are the most promising part of the current “diversity boom.” They are all adamant about the need for more representation on television and all committed to creating more diverse narratives — even if networks don’t necessarily seek them out (though, admirably, HBO is now actively searching for diverse writers for its new writing fellowship). Take The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl creator Issa Rae’s Color Creative TV initiative, which “aims to increase opportunities for women and minority TV writers to showcase and sell their work, both inside and outside the existing studio system.” It’s a DIY, admirable, and hands-on response that does not exist within the networks’ diversity boom but as a separate entity entirely — as if to say, “If networks won’t give us a chance, we’ll force them to.”
These creators aren’t just idealistic crusaders, though – they’re smart and self-aware, too. They have deep knowledge of how the television business works and know what they can do to combat and, hopefully, stealthily beat the system. Fresh Off the Boat’s Eddie Huang is characteristically candid about his emphasis on the bigger picture of representation on network television, which he sees as more valuable than making a niche, personal show on a cable network: “I can go make the work of art and no one will watch it and it will be canceled within a year,” he says. “And yeah, I intellectually masturbated, but what did I actually change? I’m actually trying to create change.”