ABC entertainment head: Shows lacking diversity ‘feel dated’
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“Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson joked about seeing a sea of white faces in the audience Tuesday at the TV critics’ press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif.
He was right. And we’re used to seeing a sea of white faces on stage, too. But today was different. That’s because ABC arguably has the most diverse fall line-up of any broadcast network ever, at least in my memory.
We’re not talking your token black or Asian character. We’re talking shows whose creators and casts — and in most cases, subject matter — better represent America as a whole, as opposed to the homogenous segment of the population (you know, white guys) that has long dominated the television entertainment industry.
“If you look at shows now that seem to lack diversity, they actually feel dated because America doesn’t look like that anymore,” ABC entertainment president Paul Lee said. “People want to see what they live and they want to see voices that reflect the America that they know.”
Debuting Sept. 24, “Black-ish” is a fall sitcom about a successful African-American couple played by Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross (“Girlfriends”), a mixed-race actress who said she’s thrilled to be playing a mixed-race character for the first time in her career. They want to give their kids a better life than they had growing up but come to realize that in the process, their kids have lost touch with black culture.
One storyline in the pilot — based on Anderson’s real-life experience — has Anderson’s 12-year-old son coming home from his privileged school and wanting a bar mitzvah despite not being Jewish. Anderson throws him a hip hop-flavored “bro mitzvah” instead. (This led to questions about why ABC’s returning sitcom “The Goldbergs” isn’t more Jewish.)
“Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris (“The Game,” “Girlfriends”) said the show is as much a look at race as it is an examination of the country’s socio-economic divisions, with colorblind family dynamics thrown in for good measure. A future storyline has Anderson’s character wanting credit for loading the dishwasher, something his doctor wife does every day.
“Race is a big part of — you know, it’s ‘Black‐ish,’ and we’re not running from it,” Barris said. “But this is a show about culture at its theme, and ultimately, beyond that, it’s a show about a family and a man trying to raise his family in a time where it’s a little bit different than it was for him.”
Latina comedian Cristela Alonzo co-created and stars in another new ABC comedy, “Cristela” (Oct. 10). She plays an aspiring lawyer who’s spent six years in law school while living with her financially strapped, traditional Mexican-American extended family.
“Cristela is so much more than star of the show; she guides us,” co-creator Kevin Hench said about Alonzo, who once lived in an abandoned diner with her family while growing up in a Texas bordertown. “When we pitch ideas that aren’t right she has no problem saying, ‘No, a Latina family wouldn’t do that.'”
A new midseason comedy is “Fresh off the Boat,” loosely based on the memoir of chef and food personality Eddie Huang. It explores the culture shock that befalls an immigrant family who’s just moved to suburban Orlando from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown.
“We love having a diverse slate, but we think these shows are deeply relatable,” said British-born Lee, who said anyone can identify with the fish-out-of-water phenomenon. “I mean, when I watch ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ or when I watch ‘Black-ish’ or when I watch ‘Cristela,’ I am one of those families. So that’s why we think they’re going to succeed.”
Lee announced Tuesday that ABC has just inked a development deal with “12 Years a Slave” writer John Ridley, who already has committed to 11 episodes of ABC’s upcoming drama “American Crime.” Starring Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman, the series will revolve around a racially charged crime and its repercussions.
Shonda Rhimes will bring another black female lead to TV with her new fall drama, “How to Get Away With Murder” (Sept. 25) starring Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis as a morally ambiguous law school professor.
Rhimes will executive produce along with creator Pete Nowalk, who’s been instrumental on Rhimes’ other two Thursday night series, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”
When a critic asked Rhimes about the impact of having two black females anchor their own primetime series, a notoriously tight-lipped Rhimes didn’t use it as a springboard to expound on television’s progress in the diversity arena.
“It remains to be seen,” Rhimes responded curtly. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
Lee was quick to point out that while ABC’s slate is full of non-traditional voices, when it comes to diversity on TV, “let’s not pretend we’re there yet,”
“To be able to pull this off, you need not just stars on air,” Lee said. “You need the storytellers and you need the executives … We’re taking a very good step along that journey.”