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2014 wasn’t the diverse TV year it could have been, but it’s a start

Viola Davis (Courtesy: ABC)
Viola Davis (Courtesy: ABC)

“The year of diversity” became the controlling narrative around this year’s fall network television slate, with a spate of publications heralding 2014 as the year the Big Four networks finally atone for decades of programming that didn’t reflect the breadth of American experiences. It’s a leap forward for television, and one made during an oddly fortuitous moment. As the nation is pelted with evidence that deflates our hopeful notions of racial equality, network television’s suddenly diverse schedule offers a vision of America in which most of our differences are merely aesthetic, and the remainder make fodder for edgy jokes. But while it’s been an interesting and eventful year for television diversity, has it been a successful one?

That depends on how “success” is defined within the context of diversity in network television, and that’s a vague notion even by moving-target standards. ABC has certainly boosted its profile this fall, reaping the lion’s share of the rewards for embracing diversity just as it took on the bulk of the risk. Like nearly all of the diversely cast shows to bow this year, ABC’s new trio: Black-ish, How To Get Away With Murder, and Cristela have achieved critical or commercial success, and in some cases, both. Unfortunately, while all three shows have been exciting and bold, their success hasn’t communicated as much about diversity on television as it has about general television trends.

And the general lessons about television haven’t been particularly illuminating. Black-ish, a sitcom about an upper-class African-American father struggling to maintain his family’s racial identity, has shown that a sitcom complementary to Modern Family, and scheduled immediately after it, can become a success. How To Get Away With Murder, featuring Viola Davis as a Philadelphia law professor entangled in a murder-mystery, has demonstrated that a competently shot and acted drama with heavily serialized elements will do middling live numbers that become stratospheric when time-shifting is factored in. Cristela, a multi-camera sitcom starring Mexican-American comic Cristela Alonzo, has demonstrated that even energetic performances and sharp writing aren’t enough to overcome the multi-camera gag reflex.

But that isn’t to say these shows aren’t important, it’s to say they’re the kind of important that won’t make sense until—at minimum—five years from now. Black-ish, Murder, Cristela, and the CW’s sublime Jane The Virgin are situated at the beginning of an arc that will hopefully continue. When networks rolled out racially homogenous schedules every year, the conversation was about an absence of diversity. But the presence of diversity? Here’s where the discourse gets fascinating because now it’s about what we mean when we talk about diversity in television, what makes television diversity important, and what our expectations are.

The raison d’être of diversity on television has quantitative elements and qualitative ones, which is why “success” becomes so difficult to define. On the quantitative side, there are aspects rooted in the basic concepts of fairness and equality. It’s unfair for network television to be racially composed in a way that doesn’t reflect the country’s population. Such a monopoly disadvantages non-white actors, and ignores the significant, under-served audiences non-white actors can attract. It perpetuates the patterns of Hollywood cronyism keeping non-white actors and the audiences that crave them on the fringes of the broader television audience. It makes racial minorities feel invisible and undervalued, and it allows the majority audience to more readily identify with the programming, increasing the value of the programming for one portion of the audience. It’s the kind of bias that’s contrary to our core values, or at least the core values to which we aspire.

Then there are the qualitative arguments for television diversity. An accurately representational show lends authenticity, an argument that has been escalating since Rachel Green and Monica Geller lived together in a version of Manhattan that might as well have been populated with the membership of a Memphis country club circa 1967. A racially diverse cast can also make for a richer, more interesting show if the diverse experiences are properly harnessed. Imagine a version of Lost—or more recently, Orange Is The New Black—with an all-white cast, and it becomes immediately clear why you can make qualitatively better television with a diversity of perspectives. Even a show like FX’s spy thriller The Americans benefits from diversity; among the highlights of its first season was the character Gregory, played by Derek Luke, whose presence illuminates fascinating nuances of the show’s mythology. It’s an exhilarating experience for the audience to be introduced to someone it would never get an opportunity to meet if not for television, and it’s even more affecting to see your own unique experience interpreted.

The networks have had tremendous recent success with the quantitative diversity, but that’s the type of diversity with which networks have been succeeding for years, though at a smaller, slower pace. Yes, it’s shocking to consider that Kerry Washington became only the second African-American woman in the starring role of a network television show since Diahann Carroll in 1968. Yes, it’s shocking that Saturday Night Live would draft five practically indistinguishable white featured players while Michelle Obama goes unteased, a phenomenon like Scandal goes untouched, and there can only be a Beyoncé sketch if Maya Rudolph doesn’t have weekend plans. The opportunities for improvement are robust.

But by and large, network television has gotten considerably better with representational diversity, which is why the conversation around television diversity is cyclical. (Remember when Ugly Betty was supposed to usher in a new age of television diversity?) Every so often, the circuitous pilot-to-pickup process from which networks cull their selections will yield a few especially diverse shows—those with a primarily non-white cast or led by a non-white actor—along with the usual smattering of supporting roles. But often, the smattering of supporting roles is the extent of network diversity, and while that’s a limited execution of representational diversity, it’s an execution at which the networks have improved gradually, though unsteadily.

The experiential diversity—the qualitative aspect—is where the networks have an opportunity to deliver the most impact, and where they’ve made the smallest progress. There’s a reason there’s so little talk about CBS’ Extant as part of the “year of TV diversity,” and it’s not only because watching the Halle Berry-led sci-fi mystery episode-by-episode is like flipping a wooden coin with “the bad kind of hilarious” engraved in one side and “super boring” in the other. Extant is representationally diverse, but while I love the idea that Halle Berry can be cast as an astronaut who makes out with a space ghost, it doesn’t make me want to watch a show about an astronaut making out with a space ghost. And aside from the individual acting choices Berry brings to the role, there’s no significance to having Berry in the role as opposed to a white actress. The same argument can be made about Octavia Spencer in Red Band Society or Omar Epps in Resurrection.

The shows central to the “year of TV diversity” narrative are Black-ish, Murder, Cristela, and Jane—the ones with refreshing perspectives. That’s because the emotional experience of watching a show like Orange weighs more than theoretical concerns about the degree to which Hollywood casting is meritocratic. Color-blind casting is important too, but to the viewer, it’ll never feel more important than a novel, immersive narrative experience or leaves as much of an impression. Admit, for example, that if not for this sentence, you might have gone the remainder of your life without thinking about Undercovers or The Event. What unites us is greater than what divides us, but what divides us is the foundation of our identities, and the stuff from which absorbing television is built.

The diversity sweet spot is hit when a show can feature a representationally diverse cast, and also not be materially about race, except for the occasional thrilling flash of identity consciousness. Of the four new shows, Murder seems the least likely symbol for television diversity. Sure, Davis is in the lead role of Annalise Keating, and there’s a diverse group of actors playing Keating’s law students, but it’s also set in a Bizarro-world Philadelphia criminal justice system in which all the murder suspects are Amanda Knoxes and Claus Von Bülows. Still, while it’s difficult to determine whether network television is “winning” diversity, Murder featured the scene that felt most like a win.

In the scene, Keating sits, defeated, at a vanity mirror and strips away her wig, her makeup, and her artifice revealing a black woman at her most fundamental and exposed. It’s a provocative confrontation of societal beauty standards, and a powerfully representational moment. Unsurprisingly, the scene blew up across Black Twitter, and it concluded with a line of dialogue that’s jaw-dropping even if you’ve never seen a frame of Murder: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” The unique perspective and the tailoring of the narrative to Twitter consumption combine to create an indelible experience for a certain section of the audience. And that’s why television diversity is important. The issue is not that television shows are designed to appeal to one cross-section of the viewing public over others; the issue is when not everyone has a show they can call their own.