This week, many new TV pilots will premiere and many beloved dramas will return to the air. Two of the shows I’m most looking forward to will be ABC’s black-ish produced by Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne, as well as a new drama produced by Shonda Rhimes, How to Get Away With Murder, starring Viola Davis.
Yet, when an African American student of mine professed she was also looking forward the upcoming season because of “all the new black TV shows,” I could not help but raise an eyebrow. While the most anticipated show black-ish, carries an all-black cast of an upper-middle-class family confronting the challenges of raising four children in an affluent, suburban, and post-racial fantasy, it will likely be the only new all-black casted show among a wave of predictable new rom-com or cop dramas throughout network television. And, while Shonda Rhimes has repeatedly used black actors to play lead roles, her shows are not exactly what one might call “Black TV.”
I can remember a time where almost every night of the week an all-black cast could be found on any given network. I grew up in the days where life was not simply made up of The Cosby Show and A Different World, as monumental and influential as these shows were, but of Martin, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, Sister, Sister, 227, Amen, Roc, Family Matters, Moesha, Living Single, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and The Bernie Mac Show (Mac made talking to the camera a comedic art). In addition, there was little controversy over SNL casting black actors because there was the Wayans’ In Living Color, and it was funnier. Forget Law and Order, I was caught up in the likes of Malik Yoba on New York Undercover.
How is it that in the “Age of Obama,” there is even less black programming on TV, save the ratchet reality TV shows of Love and Hip Hop, Basketball Wives, and the Real Housewives of Atlanta? Not only are these reality shows a false and horrible representation of black culture, but they are essentially made for pennies on the dollar when compared to a network drama or comedy.
Of course, if reality TV such as Love and Hip Hop was about authentic, complex characters, I’d watch it. I’d watch a show about drug dealers, if it were authentic and thoughtful. Who didn’t love The Wire? Who doesn’t love a good anti-hero? Black TV isn’t always about the politics of respectability. What American television should be about is presenting America with a world as diverse and complex as it really is. TV’s visual binary should not consistently be limited to that of black success or black struggle: Most of us live somewhere in between.
For many of us, TV is a safe space to check out. I get it, I do it. But what's concerning is that so many halfway decent shows must operate in a vacuum of whiteness. In fact, in many years past, some of the most successful shows in the industry nominated for Emmy Awards were virtually black-less: Breaking Bad, Modern Family, or The Big Bang Theory. Conversely, when blacks do appear on mainstream television in 2014 they are directed to the periphery as funny friends, random neighbors, or office assistants. Call it trivial, but eradicating racism is just as much about combatting the visual and symbolic as it is about the legislative battles. When it comes to television, it would be terrible to think that the best days for black America were behind them.
Don't be fooled when it comes to premiere season. Momentum is not necessarily progress. I can increase the speed on my treadmill, but in reality I’ve gone nowhere. For black TV shows to really take off, people will need to demand it, or better yet, create it. So this fall, I’ll continue to watch Scandal and I’ll be sure to check out black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder, but what I won’t do is think these shows represent more change than they do regression.