The Need to Notice: Race, Representation and Single Stories during TV Pilot Season
As summer comes to an end, we not only prepare for a turn in the weather (hopefully) and a new school year, but also a new batch of TV shows — it’s pilot season – a trial period for new shows on both network and cable channels to premiere and see if they stick. Even though I only catch a handful of new shows each September, I still get excited about possibilities and production of new media texts and artifacts–about people pushing the envelope or offering a different perspective.
There have been some fantastic and, in many ways, groundbreaking shows that have entered the pop cultural stratosphere in the last few years — two have been particularly noteworthy to me: ‘Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, both sitcoms on ABC. Both shows feature almost, if not entirely, casts of color. Not only that, these shows tackle important and often underrepresented issues around stereotypes, race and racism, class, immigration, the political climate, etc. Along the same lines, NBC’s This Is Us, also broaches tough topics (adoption, foster care, race, body image, miscarriage, substance abuse, etc.) and offers different representations than what we are typically exposed to in pop culture. These shows proved themselves as pilots and beyond and I’m grateful for them. At the same time, I (along with many other cultural critics) am acutely aware of just how much of an exception these shows are in the larger TV landscape.
In the wake of shows like ‘Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and Speechless, it feels like networks are gaining traction and hitting a pulse with many Americans in terms of representation and storytelling. ABC seems to be leading the pack in terms of networks supporting shows with more racial and ethnic diversity (add Shonda Rhimes‘ Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder to the list).
And yet, every year there’s a new batch of shows that continue to reinforce dominant narratives that center whiteness. Literally center it. One of my favorite activities is to find the posters of new shows — in subway stations, on bus stops, during commercial breaks — and notice the placement of the characters. Although I have not collected any official data on this, I would say that every year ads increasingly feature a “diverse” cast (meaning there’s at least one character or couple of characters who are not white) but the people of color are almost always placed in peripheral, tertiary positions. See examples below. Again, from the commercial ads, ABC seems to be addressing an important topic with humor and an unlikely group of characters who find commonality in being single parents. But, look at the image below — there is a Black woman in the back on the left and an Asian-American man in the back on the right. Three white people are centered. In the ad for A Million Little Things, a new drama (that appears to be an attempt to rival This is Us) about a group of friends who come together in the wake of their friend’s suicide, there is a Black couple on the right and an Asian woman all the way on the left; the white cast members remain the focus in the middle. An ad for a previous year of This is Us also offsets characters Randal and Beth to the right.
I’ve been noticing the [racialized] graphic design of these posters for years for shows like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and ABC’s Happy Endings.
There are other shows like The Kids are Alright, which appears to be entirely white-washed. The ad (below) really hammers the point home. Why are there so few main characters of color? Why are people of color often only main characters when a show’s entire premise is about race and racial identity (i.e. ‘Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat). What is the work of implicit bias not only in our everyday lives but in the ubiquity of popular culture? We need to ask these questions on a regular basis.
For all we know prior to their premieres, these shows might be great. But the purpose of this post is to call attention to the significant work that TV still has to do in terms of challenging singular and dominant narratives and creating new outlets for alternative and counter-stories to be told.
So, this pilot season and beyond, I urge you to take a few moments to notice posters and advertisements of new shows–who is front and center, who is standing on the periphery, who is blurry in the background? What seems to be the premise of the show and when it airs, does it walk the walk or just talk the talk? Representation is everything, even when it seems trivial. We need to ask questions of these ads and the shows themselves as much as we need to ask questions about news articles, podcasts, and social media posts.
There are also a ton of re-boot shows happening — Magnum, P.I., MacGyver, Roseanne, 24, Murphy Brown — I wonder, what does that say about the state of network television? More on that at another time…
What are you watching? What are you noticing? Tell me in the comments below!