TV’s (Slowly) Widening Race Lens

2013's a reminder that TV has never been better. It's even getting a little better on race. A little.

By Teresa Wiltz Dec 20, 2013

At first blush, this year didn’t look particularly hopeful for folks of color seeking a little shine in TVlandia, a little relief from a constant drumbeat of stereotypes, of Asian sidekicks and Latina hot tamales, of thugged-out brothers and fat and sassy black chicks.

Attending the television "upfronts" earlier this year, when the Big Four networks trotted out the best in show for Fall 2013, I couldn’t help but feel a little…pissed. After the runaway success of Shonda Rhimes’ "Scandal," you’d think that TV execs would be scrambling to find their own Olivia Pope, desperate to discover the next Kerry Washington. You’d think wrong. When it comes to telegraphing social change, traditional television usually pulls up the rear, finally catching on long after change has already, well, changed everything. 

So it was unsurprising, if disappointing to find that, again and again, the flavor du jour was still white. Yes, I spotted a "Scandal"-style show in the mix (because TV loves to copycat), but ABC’s "Betrayal" stars a white woman in the Olivia Pope-esque role. The more things change…

Where was the Latina "Mom"? The Arab "Crazy Ones"? Why couldn’t the "2 Broke Girls" be Asian?

Still, tucked amidst the same, old same old were glimmers of hope. CBS offered "We Are Men," starring Kal Penn, Jerry O’Connell, Chris Smith and Tony Shahloub, a sitcom about four men forced to live together as roommates. NBC gave us the exceedingly short-lived "Ironside," with Blair Underwood revising the classic cop in a wheelchair role, with an extra helping of badass. NBC also gave us–briefly–"Welcome To the Family," a sitcom about a Latino family and a white family suddenly united when their teenagers decide to get hitched. That one, too, died a quick death. And incredibly, this year, FOX, home of Megyn Kelly/White Santa, has brought us some of the most progressive programming on broadcast TV: "Sleepy Hollow," starring Nicole Beharie as the whip-smart black cop paired up with the time-traveling Ichabod Crane, and "Almost Human," with Michael Ealy playing an android with a heart.

So, whenever I try to make sense of television and race in 2013, I find myself veering between outrage (Seriously? Black women comics aren’t "ready" for SNL?) and hope (Angela Bassett and Gabby Sidibe and vodoun on "American Horror Story"!). Hollywood continues to move at turtle’s pace, but it’s moving. Sputtering movement, yes, but movement, nonetheless. Thanks to the web, the concept of "television" has expanded exponentially, and in order to hold onto any semblance of relevancy (and advertising dollars), traditional TV has to try to keep up. Because Issa Rae is coming for you with her new Youtube channel.

In so many ways, we’re living in the golden age of television. Television no longer has the taint of second best. (Though reality TV seems intent on keeping the "boob tube" sobriquet alive.) Today we’re in the era of binge-watching great performances, of gobbling up entire seasons in a weekend. Because you can. And because it’s generally far better than what you find at the overpriced multiplex.

This year, I found myself pleasantly surprised on more than one occasion. "Sleepy Hollow" turned out to be on point about the reality of race circa 1781. Then, on "American Horror Story: Coven," I got a kick out of watching the immortal, evil slave-owner (Kathy Bates) who suddenly finds herself dragged into 2013 New Orleans–where she is decapitated and then forced to watch reruns of "Roots." (It took watching documentary footage of the civil rights movement to make her cry, though.)

Earlier in the year, looking at the billboards and trailers for Netflix’s "Orange Is the New Black," I had pretty much decided to take a pass. Pretty blonde white chick goes slumming in prison? No thanks. But I hate to criticize without knowing what I’m talking about, so I took a look–and was instantly hooked. It was smart and funny and poignant, demonstrating a real emotional intelligence about race and class and gender and the role luck plays in determining who’s on top and who’s not. Plus, it gave us the fabulously talented Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, playing the wonderfully complex Sophia. (And Cox’s twin brother played Sophia pre-op/transition.) Awesome stuff.

Also awesome was "Breaking Bad," which I finally fell in love with after many seasons of resistance. On the one hand, it was a show about two white guys seeking world domination via a meth lab. On the other hand, it had Giancarlo Esposito in a many-season story arc playing their insidiously evil overlord. But I’m still trying to figure out why the show had so many non-Latinos playing Latinos in Spanish-speaking roles. I love Esposito, but for all his acting prowess, he never once sounded like a native Chilean.

These days, there’s so much good TV, so little time. I don’t love "The Mindy Kaling Project," but I’m happy that she has a show rather than playing the South Asian sidekick. I try to catch Lucy Liu solving murders in "Elementary"–yay for turning the Chinese-American nerd stereotype upside down. I’m still waiting to catch up on Season 3 of "Boardwalk Empire"–the better to be fully prepared for the season that I really want to watch: 2013’s Season 4, starring Jeffrey Wright as a West Indian racketeer modeled after real-life Harlem crime boss Casper Holstein. Also promising: Amazon’s new streaming series, "The Alpha House," with Mark Consuelos and Clark Johnson as two conniving Republican (!) senators.

The jury’s still out, of course. The cynic in me wonders if all this golden-agedness is a sign of real change, or a mere blip on the flat screen. So far, for 2014, I’m looking forward to the return of BET’s "Being Mary Jane," starring Gabrielle Union. I can’t wait to get back to watching Don Cheadle wreck all kinds of corporate havoc in Showtime’s "House of Lies." Television has never been better. I just want it to do better. Consistently. 

Teresa Wiltz is the author of the forthcoming memoir, "The Real America," to be published by in 2014.