The Atlantic Daily: The Untold Stories of Black TV

On some of America’s favorite Black shows, the struggle for representation continued behind the scenes, from our latest cover story. Plus: the potential unintended consequences of COVID booster-shot banditry.

Eddie Winslow, Steve Urkel and Carl Winslow stand in the living room of the set of "Family Matters"
From left to right: Eddie Winslow (Darius McCrary), Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), and Carl Winslow (Reginald VelJohnson) in Family Matters. The sitcom’s cast was predominantly Black, but the series was written and conceptualized mainly by white people. (ABC / Everett Collection)

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Sanford and Son. A Different World. Sister, Sister. For our October cover story, my colleague Hannah Giorgis delves into the untold stories—and unwritten rules—of Black TV.

Even as The Cosby Show’s ratings soared in the 1980s, both white executives and Black critics complained that its upper-middle-class family depicted an “unrealistic” version of Black life. Writers faced a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma,” Hannah writes: “Be Black, but not too Black. Or: Be Black, but not like that.”

The Cosby experience, Hannah argues, reflects how, for decades, Black writers have been pressured to tell stories that white executives find “authentic.” Here are three takeaways from her story:

1. White writers have dominated some of America’s favorite Black shows.

Some of the names might surprise you. Hannah shares one awkward conversation that arose in the mostly white writers’ room of Family Matters, after a Black writer pointed out just how unlikely it was that a Black father would not believe his son’s account of being harassed by a cop. “I mean, you can hear a pin drop.”

Even Issa Rae, whose HBO dramedy series, Insecure, shows Black life “without pathologizing or feeling burdened by it,” had to negotiate her authenticity early in her career. Rae, Hannah writes, was “continually told by non-Black Hollywood executives that her stories weren’t truly reflective of Black experiences.”

2. Some of the biggest advances in the industry are tied to one woman.

“The Shonda effect” is real. For a time, Shonda Rhimes—the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal—was her own $2 billion industry, producing about 70 hours’ worth of television annually for Disney, which owns ABC. Her demands for a multiethnic ensemble in both casting and the writers’ room had observable consequences, Hannah argues.

3. Audiences are evolving, and executives will need to as well.

Ratings for majority-minority shows are at all-time highs among young viewers. “Decades ago, Black visionaries were up against both market factors and corporate resistance—not a fair fight,” Hannah writes. “But demographics have changed, and so have public opinion and popular taste.”

Read Hannah’s full cover story.

A red background a syringe and a black eye mask in front
(Getty; The Atlantic)

The news in three sentences:

(1) Tropical Storm Nicholas is expected to make landfall in Texas this evening. (2) Internal documents show that the Federal Election Commission ruled that Twitter did not violate election laws when it suppressed an article about Hunter Biden in October 2020. (3) U.S. Capitol Police arrested a man parked near the Democratic National Committee headquarters with a machete and bayonet in his truck.

One question, answered:

Should you get an illicit COVID-19 booster shot if you’re not immunocompromised? Our senior associate editor Rachel Gutman spoke with experts about the potential unintended consequences of booster banditry:

Esther Choo, an emergency-medicine professor at Oregon Health and Science University, recently told me that ​​lying (overtly or by omission) to get a third dose can mess up the data on how well third shots are performing among the immunocompromised and how well a two-dose regimen is protecting those with healthy immune systems. On an even more basic level, under-the-table boosting could skew data on national vaccination rates, making public-health authorities think more people have gotten their first or second shots than is actually the case. Essentially, getting a third shot before the CDC’s go-ahead can make it harder for health officials to determine when and if everyone else will really need them.

Getting another shot can offer a sense of safety and control, however fleeting, Rachel writes. But whether or not it’s ethical can depend a lot on your individual situation.

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:

September book releases are in full swing. Lauren Groff’s new novel, Matrix, is “another masterpiece from a writer whom few at this point can best,” our Culture writer Sophie Gilbert maintains.

A break from the news:

Our staff writer James Parker spent an evening with the Eagles—and the band’s fans—on the Hotel California tour.

Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.