The Fall TV Season always brings in new shows, and this fall, shows that feature actors of color are featuring them in innovative ways. There’s an Afro-Cuban president, and a Latino Supreme Court Justice. Two spy shows both feature actors of color as the titular leads!
From Left to Right: Terrence Howard is District Attorney Jonah Dekker on Law & Order: Los Angeles, Maggie Q. is Nikita, Daniel Dae Kim is Hawaii Five-0‘s Chin Ho Kelly, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Mrs. Samantha Undercovers Bloom, and Jimmy Smits is Outlaw Cyrus Garza
Despite these advances, Ray Bradford, the national director for equal employment opportunities at the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) describes the Fall 2010 television season as “really troubling.” “What I’m seeing is, with a few exceptions, not only shows that are predominately Caucasian with a smattering of minorities, primarily black or Asian in some roles; I’m seeing primarily Caucasian shows period,” Bradford said. “So while for each quarter you may have a handful of African Americans or Asians or Latinos, the bulk of the work in these shows is white.”
Some shows stick to formula, using actors of color in key roles, but still orbiting the white, male, featured lead. But we hope that the shows that are willing to take risks will do really well this fall and encourage more network television studios to offer equal opportunities to actors of color.
Here, Racebending.com takes a look at some of Fall 2010′s diverse network television offerings. Thankfully, these are not the only shows this fall that will feature people of color in key roles!
The CW (Thur. 9/8c)
“When her fiancé was murdered, Nikita escaped the Division. Now, after three years in hiding, Nikita is seeking retribution and making it clear to her former bosses that she will stop at nothing to expose and destroy their covert operation.”
It’s also not often that women–particularly women of color–get to star as the lead in an action series. Maggie Q.’s casting is The CW’s highest-profile minority casting in the network’s history, and highest-profile series role for an Asian American actress (Q. is of Vietnamese, Polish, and Irish descent) on a broadcast drama series, ever. [source].
When asked about the significance of her casting at Comic Con 2010, Maggie Q. said: “I am not the typical choice for this, and am glad to be able to represent a group of people who are underrepresented.” [source].
What We Don’t Want to See: In a genre that tends to sexualize and objectify women–in an industry that particularly sexualizes and objectifies Asian women– it would be easy for Hollywood to, well, go there and reinforce the “Dragon Lady” stereotype. Series creator Craig Silverstein said he wanted to write the lead as “beautiful and exotic” and it looks like critics are already thinking that “exotic” is a great word to use when describing Maggie Q. (Here’s to hoping the use of the word “exotic” won’t bleed over into the show’s racy advertising.)
We also really hope the show doesn’t go the way of other recent shows with women leads in action roles, like Dollhouse and Sarah Connor Chronicles. Maybe this one will be an Alias instead of a Bionic Woman.
What We’d Love to See: There’s a lot of women in the lead cast, including the very talented Melinda Clarke, so it would be great to see the show regularly pass the Bechedel test! (Bechedel test: Two women in a scene, having a conversation, talking about something other than a man.)
Aside from Maggie Q., the supporting cast is a bit monochrome, but we hope the show will feature the secret Division of the CIA as a globe-spanning organization with a diverse set of operatives. Given that 60% of the world population is Asian, an Asian spy-assassin can probably go places and blend in where Sydney Bristow from Alias could not!
Law & Order: Los Angeles
NBC (Wed. 10/9c)
“In the criminal justice system the people are represented by two separate legally important groups…This is Los Angeles. These are its stories. Welcome to the Wild West.”
By setting Law & Order in one of the most diverse cities in the world, the producers of the show have a great opportunity to showcase several actors and communities of color. Los Angeles has a population that is 48% Latino, 28% White, 14% Asian American/Pacific Islander, 9% African American, and 1% Native American.
In the initial casting breakdown, the lead role of Rex Winters was open to Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic actors (but not Asian, Middle Eastern or Native American actors?). The role has ultimately been cast with Skeet Ulrich, who will headline the show with Corey Stoll (playing his partner, TJ, a role only open to Caucasian males).
Ulrich and Stoll’s characters will report to Lieutenant Arleen Gonzales, played by actress Wanda De Jesus. We’re thrilled to see that the Commanding Officer of the LAPD Robbery Homocide Division will be a Latina. The workforce of the Los Angeles Police Department is comprised of 42% Latino, 37% white, 12% black and 7% Asian. [source]. The LAPD also hired America’s first female police officer, Alice Stebbins Wells, in 1910.
The show’s courtroom scenes will feature African American movie star Terrence Howard as Deputy District Attorney Jonah Dekker. Other courtroom scenes will feature African American actress Regina Hall as Prosecutor Evelyn Price, and veteran British actor Alfred Molina as District Attorney Peter Morales, a Latino character.
What We Don’t Want to See: While it’s true that Los Angeles has a ton of cultural enclaves (Thai Town, Koreatown, the Russian District, barrios, West Hollywood, etc.) we don’t want the presence of actors of color on the show to be limited to stories set in those locales. And please, please don’t do a “Chinatown” episode!
What We’d Love to See: We were disappointed to see that the character of Korean American Captain Park was scrapped and that no Asian Americans will be in the leading cast – particularly since 13.4% of Angelenos are Asian American and Asian Americans make up 7% of the real-life LAPD’s workforce. We hope that as the show grows, Asian Americans will feature in the supporting cast–not just as the “techie” or as a mafia bad guy–and join the main cast ASAP. Given Los Angeles has one of the largest Persian communities in the country, we also hope the show will feature Perisan American characters.
NBC (Mon. 9/8c)
“The Event is an emotional, high-octane conspiracy thriller that follows Sean Walker (Jason Ritter), an everyman who investigates the mysterious disappearance of his would-be fiancée Leila, and unwittingly begins to expose the biggest cover-up in U.S. history.
With a vast ensemble cast and a non-linear plot, The Event generated a lot of buzz at San Diego Comic Con 2010. The early plot line seems to focus around the United States government’s illegal detaining of a mysterious group of people in Alaska.
Major players include an Afro-Cuban American President, Elias Martinez (Blair Underwood) and his wife Christina (played by Latina actress Lisa Vidal), as well as an Asian American CIA agent, Simon Lee (Ian Anthony Dale.) Latino actor Clifton Collins Jr. also stars as “Thomas.”
What We Don’t Want to See: We definitely don’t want to see this show pull a “Heroes” where women and characters of color are treated as stereotyped bit-players who are expendable to the primary plot revolving around white and/or male characters. A lot of shows have a diverse cast while making it obvious who the “essential” and “important” players are; we think The Event can defy this trend.
What We’d Love to See: There isn’t enough smart sci-fi out there! And science fiction has always been an interesting way to approach representation in the media, from Star Trek, which showed 1960s America a diverse cast and TV’s first interracial kiss, to LOST, which kicked off a new trend of diverse casting. We hope The Event can leverage its diverse cast to create some really interesting storylines, and bring prominence to a new set of actors of color the same way LOST did for Daniel Dae Kim et. al.
NBC (Wed 8/7c)
“Outwardly, Steven Bloom (Boris Kodjoe) and his wife, Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), are a typical married couple who own and operate a small catering company in Los Angeles. Secretly, the duo were two of the best spies the CIA had ever known, until they fell in love on the job five years ago and retired. When a fellow spy and good friend goes missing while on the trail of a Russian arms dealer, the Blooms are reinstated to locate and rescue him…”
This J.J. Abrams spy thriller-meets-romantic comedy is generating a lot of attention for featuring two African American CIA agents as the lead characters. Biracial actors Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw were discovered in a colorblind casting process. Kodjoe is from Germany and Mbatha-Raw is from the United Kingdom.
At a press conference, Kodjoe said about his role as one of Undercovers‘ two black leads: “I think it’s important to recognize the fact that it’s not the norm, although it should be the norm because that’s the way the world looks like. The world is diverse and we come in all shapes, sizes and shades. Let’s inspire people to regard it as normal so more and more people don’t consider it taking a chance, but just being creative.” [source]
What We Don’t Want to See: As a globe-trotting spy drama, we hope that the supporting cast is also diverse. It will be interesting to see what challenges and advantages an African American spy would have compared to a Caucasian American spy, so while it shouldn’t be a central foci, we hope that their ethnicity isn’t completely glossed over.
What We’d Love to See: This show looks like so much fun! We hope that its success will encourage other productions to consider casting actors of color in lead roles…
NBC (Thur. 9:30/8:30c)
“Mid America Novelties sells products like whoopee cushions, foam fingers, and wallets made of bacon. Yes, this is the stuff upon which the American way of life is built, but try explaining that to someone who lives on the other side of the world. Well, that’s exactly what Todd Dempsy must do when he’s sent to run the company’s call center in India. Talk about culture shock, and not just for Todd’s employees. While Todd has to teach them how to make the up-sell to the Deluxe Twin Beer Helmet, he’s going to have to adapt as well…”
What happens when a naive, young, white American man is sent to India to corral a quirky band of call center workers? Outsourced takes the workplace comedy genre and transplants it to a foreign-at-least-to-Americans setting.
For actors of South Asian descent, the setting means jobs and visibility–this ensemble cast has more Indian characters than any other American sitcom. The comedy, based on the movie, is shot in Los Angeles and cast with British, Canadian, and American actors of South Asian descent.
But could a comedy about culture clash and the controversial practice of outsourcing jobs to India end up being culturally insensitive or offensive? To forestall accusations of cultural insensitivity, NBC has screened the show for Asian American organizations and taken feedback.
“It is certainly not coming from a mean-spirited place. A third of the writing staff is Indian,” executive producer Ken Kwapis said. “I think there is a way to treat cultural confusion without being offensive.” [source]
What We Don’t Want to See: Hopefully, the show won’t make fun of other cultures or make Americans look like uncultured buffoons or people who go to other countries to learn “deep lessons.” Will the show go “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” where Todd, a white character, is always the center of attention and the characters of color are interchangeable backgrounders? We hope not, and we hope that characters of color will also be depicted as “representative” of Americans abroad, in addition to white characters.
(NBC marketers, which one of you came up with the tagline “Outsourced: where the Midwest meets the exotic East”? Because…yeah. Real smooth, buddy.)
What We’d Love to See: India is a really, really diverse country and we hope the show will be an opportunity to showcase that! Even though Todd will be teaching his employees about America, there is a lot for him (and the audience by proxy) to learn, too.
The trailer seems to set up a romance between Todd and Tonya (Jessica Gower), blonde Australian living in India. But rather than go down that conventional road (“Westerner visits exotic land, find loves with the other Westerner who happens to be around and relates to him”) we would be way more interested in seeing an Indian guy portrayed as a romantic lead. Can you think of any in Western media?
We’d also like to see some characters who are Indian American on the show. It’s not inconceivable, especially in this economy, that an American born-and-raised South Asian American guy (or girl) would end up in India, completely lost.
NBC (Fri. 10/9c)
“Few jobs are guaranteed for a lifetime, and a Supreme Court appointment is one you just don’t quit. Unless you’re Cyrus Garza. A playboy and a gambler, Justice Garza always adhered to a strict interpretation of the law, until he realized the system he always believed in was flawed. Now, he’s quit the bench and returned to being an attorney. Determined to represent “the little guy,” he’s using his inside knowledge of the justice system to take on today’s biggest legal cases…”
Outlaw starts Jimmy Smits as Cyrus Garza, a former Supreme Court Justice who steps down from the bench to change the system as an attorney. Smits played the proto-Obama Presidential candidate Matt Santos on The West Wing; this time he’ll be playing a conservative activist judge. David Ramsey, Ellen Woglom, Carly Pope and Jesse Bradford play supporting roles.
Executive producer David Kissinger said he was inspired by Latina Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: “People were writing about her life and the dues she had to pay to get to that point, so it struck me that someone who worked that hard and achieved that incredible position, what would it take for that person to give it all up and what would they give it all up for?” [source]
When asked about the dearth of Latino Emmy nominations, Smits recently said: “We have many more Latinos that are in prominent positions on shows all across the dial than ever before. I’m happy that just about on every other show there’s a Latino somewhere present and we’re not all the cooks anymore.” [source]
What We Don’t Want to See: So…the premise of this show seems a little hokey. But it will be interesting to see the premise play out. In the show’s universe, is Garza’s ethnicity as significant as Sotomayor’s?
What We’d Love to See: Edward James Olmos as Cyrus’s liberal dad! And interesting court cases with diverse clientèle!
ABC (Tues. 10/9c)
“What does it take to be a detective on America’s streets? Get an in-depth look at some of Detroit’s finest and watch the crisis and revelation, heartbreak and heroism of the cops assigned to an inner city homicide unit.’
ABC’s Detroit 1-8-7 boasts a strikingly diverse cast and will be filmed in Detroit, Michigan, but it’s also trailed by some controversy. At least one Detroit City Councilman has asked the show to change its title–1-8-7 is a police radio code for “homicide” in California–given how the title reinforces the negative stereotype of Detroit as “Murder City.” And the show’s “documentary” premise had to be dialed down after a little girl, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, was shot in the head after Detroit police threw a grenade into her home–all while cameras were rolling for a reality show. [source]
Unlike many other police shows, Detroit 1-8-7 will actually be filmed in the city it is set in, and Detroit native T.C.Real, a local hip-hop celebrity, is rumored to be playing a supporting role. Detroit has an 80% African American population; the cast includes three African American characters, newbie Detective Damon Washington (Jon Michael Hill), veteran cop Sergeant Jesse Longford (James McDaniel),and homicide chief Lieutenant Maureen Mason (Aisha Hinds.)
Rounding out the characters of color, Natalie Martinez plays Detective Ariana Sanchez, a former vice cop, and South Asian Canadian actor Shaun Majumder plays Detective Aman Mahajan, who disappointed his immigrant parents by becoming a cop instead of an engineer.
What We Don’t Want to See: Honestly, we were shocked to see that ABC would make a show set in Detroit–of all places–and still have a white main character. While there are certainly people of color in the ensemble cast, Michael Imperioli has top billing playing Detective Louis Fitch, “the smartest guy in the room.” It’s a little disappointing, since there are already so many procedurals with a white, male actor in top billing. This would have been a great opportunity to have an African American actor headline a police show. Dreading a show that looks like the promo picture, with lots of diverse secondary characters, but a focus on the white male lead as the central character.
What We’d Love to See: We hope that all characters on this show get equal amounts character development and that it truly becomes an ensemble show! We hope the show has a diverse writing staff that can handle issues of race, discrimination, and policing in a nuanced and sensitive way. (More than just having Longford say stuff like, “I been here so long, when I started, half the suspects were white.”)
Off The Map
Welcome to “la ciudad de las estrellas” (the city of stars), a tiny town in the South American jungle which has one understaffed, understocked medical clinic. In this ensemble drama, five doctors who have lost their way will go to the ends of the earth to try to remember the reasons why they wanted to become doctors in the first place.
This show is produced by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice), one of only non-white, non-male show runners. It stars Martin Henderson as Dr. Ben Keaton, formerly Chief of Surgery at UCLA, who moved to the South American jungle to found a clinic with Dr. Otis Cole (Jason George). A trio of newbie doctors–Dr. Lily Brenner (Caroline Dhavernas), Mina Minard and Manny Diaz, join them.
26% of doctors in California are Asian or Pacific Islander, yet doctors of Asian descent are rarely depicted with that frequency on American television shows, and when they are featured, they are members of the supporting cast and not the lead. We were disappointed to learn that an opportunity to buck this trend was lost when Meena Mital, the name of a South Asian character in the original script, was changed to Mina Minard and cast with actress Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter). The actor originally cast to play Manny, Enrique Murciano, has also left the show. [source]
The original ensemble of five doctors would have been comprised of two white doctors (Henderson and Dhavernas in the lead roles), an African American doctor, a Latino doctor, and an Indian American doctor. With the Indian American doctor cast and rewritten to be white, and the actor playing the Latino doctor off the show, the ragtag gang of doctors without borders looks a lot less colorful.
What We Don’t Want to See: Benevolent white American doctors hoofing it in the jungle, tending to the ignorant, but noble, native savages, while discovering more about themselves in an exotic jungle land at the “ends of the earth.”
What We’d Love to See: More doctors and nurses played by actors of color on the show, and hopefully the re-casting of the Manny Diaz character with another Latino actor to replace Enrique Murciano. It would be important to see the protagonists grapple with the concept of being first-worlders imposing on the native community, and their preconceived notions of international field work. Ideally, the doctors will help empower the community instead of simply treating it.
CBS (Mon. 10/9)
“Hawaii Five-0 is a contemporary take on the classic series about a new elite federalized task force whose mission is to wipe out the crime that washes up on the Islands’ sun-drenched beaches. Detective Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin), a decorated Naval officer-turned-cop, returns to Oahu to investigate his father’s murder and stays after Hawaii’s Governor persuades him to head up a new team. Joining McGarrett is Detective Danny “Danno” Williams (Scott Caan), a newly relocated ex-New Jersey cop, and Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim), an ex-Honolulu Police Detective. Chin’s cousin, Kono (Grace Park), is a beautiful and fearless native, fresh out of the academy and eager to establish herself among the department’s elite.”
The original series exposed Americans to a dramatized version of life on the 50th state, and was a huge boon to the State’s tourism economy. [source] The series, which ran from1968 to 1980, was very progressive for its time in that it employed many actors of color, including Kam Fong as Chinese Hawaiian Detective Chin Ho Kelly, and Zulu, a Native Hawaiian actor, as Kono Kalakaua. Of course, the show was heavily focused on its main lead, Steve Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) – even though at the time only 2 out of 5 people in Hawaii were white. A previous attempt to resurrect the show acknowledged the diversity of Hawaii (47.5% Asian Pacific American, compared to a 27.1% white American population) by casting Gary Busey and Russell Wong as a younger Five-O team, but the pilot did not test well and the show was never aired.
With two Asian Americans in the lead cast and guest stars D.L. Hughley and Masi Oka (Heroes) as the city coroner, Hawaii Five-0 might just continue the progressive legacy of its forbearer and provide actors of color with opportunities. And hopefully these opportunities will also expand to actors of color living on the islands. The Honolulu Advertiser wrote, “There’s already been grumbling about the lack of local faces among the stars of the new ‘Five-0′ (sorry, Daniel Dae Kim, you don’t count), but we’re not hung up on that. It’s not just about who gets top billing. Producers of the original show tapped a long roster of local performers and regular people, whose talents and authenticity added to the richness of nearly every episode.” TV Guide also noted that while Hawaiians are enthusiastic about the revival, “it has not been lost on them that Kim and Park–both of Korean descent–are playing characters originally portrayed by Hawaiian actors.” According to TV Guide, the producers “insist they are actively looking to populate their on-screen canvas with Hawaiian natives.”
Despite the original show’s progressive racial casting, there was very little gender equality–except for a brief stint in the first season, all of the detectives on the Five-O team were men. The revival has countered that discrepancy by rewriting one of the show’s main leads, Kono Kalakaua to be a woman, Kona Kalakaua (nicknamed “Kono”), played by Grace Park
Park has starred in two revivals of 1970s shows; in both Battlestar Galactica and Hawaii Five-0, she plays characters originally portrayed by male actors of color. “Back in the day, we used to have much more male-centric shows,” she said. “You still have male-heavy shows, but having a woman in there adds a new dimension.” [source]
What We Don’t Want to See: The show goes the same way as the old series, with an unwavering focus on McGarrett.
What We’d Love to See: We’d love to see a large, diverse, and well developed ensemble cast, and lots of featured Hawaiian actors, including in the lead cast.