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TV Roles in 2014: A Minority Opinion
December 31, 2014  | By Gerald Jordan
 

Alfre Woodard was not yet a star when she played the scruffy, unlearned Geechee opposite Mary Steenburgen in the 1983 movie Cross Creek (photo below, right), but there was not then, and certainly not now, any question of her talent and her capacity to present to audiences a range of characters and portrayals.

That makes her role in NBC’s State of Affairs no surprise, but she might have guffawed 30 years ago if she had been asked whether the part of president of the United States would go to an African-American woman in a network prime time program.

Leading roles for minority actors remain scarce, but this TV season brought some major achievements for network programming and the advertisers who support them.

Why advertisers? Corporate executives worried so much about whether white customers would reject products if they were too closely associated with minorities, African Americans in particular. One can only hope that those dreadful days are gone forever. Advertising, in fact, might be in stride with programming moves, notably using a rainbow of families to sell products and services in commercials – even occasional presentations of bi-racial families.

That took some fortitude after such a kerfuffle over the Cheerios commercial that featured a darling biracial child asking her white mother about the heart-healthy benefits of the cereal before pouring a box on her black dad’s heart as he napped on the couch.

Something as incidental as that commercial touched off a social-media, hate-filled storm over whether Cheerios sought to coerce America to accept the diversity that the 2010 Census reported already existed. Biracial children are among the fastest growing demographic. So that commercial, and others like it, actually followed Census data.

Several products have shown interracial families making decisions on such weighty matters as dining out, cleaning supplies and motor-vehicle purchases. It’s the world that is seen in abundance in metropolitan areas and in increasing numbers in rural America. Stroll the aisles at Wal-Mart sometime, and do some serious people watching.

Assign a good deal of that increasing tolerance to the millennial generation. The 18-to-33-year-olds have a compelling reason: In 1960 America was 85 percent white. It will be 43 percent white by 2060, according to the Pew Research Center.

And an essentially black-and-white America has been supplanted by an America shown in the high-definition beauty of the more than 40 million immigrants ­– nearly half of them Latino, and nearly 30 percent, Asian – who have come here since 1965, also according to Pew.

For the sheer enjoyment of watching TV, the arrival of millennials to adulthood has built a welcoming audience for Jane the Virgin, a still to be determined audience for The Mindy Project, and advertising sales for just about everything that Shonda Rhimes touches – Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder.

State of Affairs fits quite nicely into that prime time soap dish. Katherine Heigl portrays CIA official Charleston Tucker, who is responsible for briefing President Constance Payton (Woodard). The soapy part? Charlie Tucker was engaged to the president’s son, who was killed in a terrorist attack.

True to its imitative flattery, to borrow from Fred Allen, ABC – buoyed by the early success of black-ish (at right) – is scheduled to roll out a sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, about an Asian family that aspires to assimilate into American culture. Asian Americans probably will approach this sitcom with the same apprehension that African Americans greeted black-ish, which actually is pretty funny without being all-out insulting.

Sitcom formats and revered norms in TV comedy pretty well guarantee the kinds of shortcuts and cultural abbreviations that will prompt some to laugh, where others – notably those who truly know the culture presented – will groan in offense.

The gifted writers (read that as: the ones who work in diverse surroundings and get reality checks without having to leave the writers’ room) are able to find the laughter sweet spot.

Cristela offers belly laughs or uncomfortable cringes for sitcom audiences to peer into Latino culture, even though George Lopez, with his self-deprecating brand of humor, broke the eggs for that omelet years ago.

Hit the pause button.

Are any of these programs accurate examinations of life in America for racial minorities? Remember that you hit the pause button; it’s television. TV actors are not the community leaders, the hard workers, the thinkers, the professionals and others who build real American families. TV roles are written to entertain those who do the real work in America.

It’s gratifying, nevertheless, to see that prime time in 2014 shows an America that has minorities in leading roles, in supporting roles, in casual roles, in incidental roles. Remember, though, it’s still television. Better by far than the days of black-and-white TV, when minorities, for the most part, didn’t exist, except servants.

In a way, the increased inclusion of minorities in prime time TV is a gift from the growing tolerance of millennials. Their viewing habits are by no means as fixed as their parents – and certainly not their grandparents – but their antennae for a clearer picture of America are the sharpest of any generation yet.

That could prompt a rerun of a baby boomer’s childhood – and the demise of a New Year’s resolution – meaning watching more TV. It’s a good idea to have ratings survey answers at the ready...

 
 
 
 
 
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