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TV Networks Double Down On Diversity This Fall


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. You may have to rethink your TV-watching schedule now that most of the major networks have unveiled their new fall offerings, as well as which shows made the cut and which ones will fade to black.

Later, we will hear from writer Jeff Yang. You've heard him here, on both our Parenting and Barbershop roundtables. He's going to tell us about ABC's new show "Fresh Off The Boat" because his son is the star of the new sitcom.

But first, we wanted to talk about some of the other new shows that feature diverse casts or people of color in leading roles. Here to tell us about that is Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let's get the bad news out of the way. Are there some standout shows that won't be making a return next season?

DEGGANS: Critics seemed to really like "Trophy Wife," which was a show that was new on ABC that featured some people that folks really like from television, including alums from "The West Wing" and stuff like that. And it was about a guy who had a collection of ex-wives who were very quirky. But it just couldn't survive.

And then critics also loved "Community," this show on NBC that's always had a strong cult following, and they've always done really innovative stuff. They had an episode that was devoted to "My Dinner With Andre," that very ambitious movie. And they also had an episode this season that was a cartoon that was like a "G.I. Joe"-style cartoon. It was very, very inventive. But it just couldn't make the cut. It could not draw a big enough audience to stick for next season. And so it went out in a blaze of glory with a bunch of really good episodes this season.

MARTIN: But there are a number of shows with performers of color that have really taken off, and they're coming back, right?

DEGGANS: Yeah, most definitely. We saw on Fox, for example - and we've talked about this before - they had several shows where people of color were co-leads. So they had a comedy called "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" with Andy Samberg and with Andre Braugher as co-leads, and that was picked up pretty early.

And then they also had a show called "Sleepy Hollow," where they had a male-female lead. And the male was white, and the female was African-American. That show was picked up for a second season really early in its run. And I think Fox is really bullish on it.

And there's a show called "Resurrection" on ABC that stars Omar Epps. And it's almost like a hidden success. That show has done pretty well on Sunday nights, and Sunday nights has a lot of competition for viewers. And that's coming back next year.

So I think ABC, in particular, looked at the success of shows like "Modern Family" and "Scandal" and "Resurrection" and said, you know what? We're going to double down on diversity with our new shows.

MARTIN: Tell us what's coming up and if you think there's kind of any through line there.

DEGGANS: Number one, there's an uptick of shows that are created by people of color. So we have John Ridley, who's an NPR contributor but also wrote the screenplay to "12 Years A Slave." You know, he got a show called "American Crime" on ABC.

Shonda Rhimes is the best example of this, the creator of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal." She has a new show called "How To Get Away With Murder," starring Viola Davis, who was nominate for Oscar recently. And Shonda is going to have control of three hours of primetime television on the same night. I'm not sure any showrunner has ever done that, let alone a black, female showrunner. And she's going to have two shows featuring black women, "Scandal" and this new one, "How To Get Away With Murder." So not only are the characters diverse, but the people who are creating the shows and producing the shows and controlling the shows are diverse. And that's really important

MARTIN: One more thought about Shonda Rhimes. You mentioned that she has become the most powerful woman showrunner in television. I just want to play a short clip from - what? - is it "How To Get Away With Murder"? That's her latest offering, and here it is.


JACK FALAHEE: (As Patrick Donahue) You don't want to be a sitting duck when the shooter gets here.

ALFIE ENOCH: (As Wes Gibbins) What?

FALAHEE: (As Patrick Donahue) My God. You have no idea what you just walked into.

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) Good morning. I don't know what terrible things you've done in your life up to this point, but clearly your karma is out of balance. You got assigned to my class. I'm Professor Annalise Keating, and this is Criminal Law 100, or as I prefer to call it, How To Get Away With murder.

MARTIN: Well, that's...


MARTIN: That sounds kind of interesting.

DEGGANS: She's a defense attorney who teaches a law class and uses it to sort of figure out young interns who can join her law firm. And so, you know, it's Shonda Rhimes, so there's going to be sex and intrigue and politics and all that stuff. But it is very interesting and just wonderful to see a really diverse slate of characters starting with the star all the way down.

MARTIN: There's one show that people seem to be already kind of buzzing about. It's called "Black-ish," starring Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne. And I do have a clip, and here it is.


ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Lately, I feel in order to make it, we've all dropped a little of our culture.

JACOB KEMP: (As Kris Levine) What's up, Andy?

MARCUS SCRIBNER: (As Andre Johnson Jr.) 'Sup?

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Andy? That's not even close to Andre.

SCRIBNER: (As Andre Johnson Jr.) I think it says I'm edgy, but approachable.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) I think it says, I hate my father, and I play field hockey.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. (Laughing) Oh, my goodness.

DEGGANS: (Laughing) I know.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about this. I mean, what's happening here?

DEGGANS: Well, this show - what's interesting about this show -OK, it's a show about a wealthy African-American man played by Anthony Anderson. You've seen him on "Law And Order" and other shows. He is worried that his kids are as not as connected to black culture as they should be. And so, you know, the show is all about him trying to get them connected to their roots and then eventually kind of understanding that they just live a different kind of multicultural world than he did when he was being raised.

But what's interesting to me about this show is that this is a concept that several entertainers of color have talked about and have pitched as series. John Leguizamo had a similar idea for a series. I think that was advanced in the last pilot season for this current TV season that we're now, and ABC didn't buy the show.

And Chris Rock has told comedy routines about this; about, you know, how do you deal with the fact that you're wealthy, and your kids of color have a very different experience as wealthy black kids than you had growing up when you didn't have much and you feel like they don't have the same kind of values that you do?

So Laurence Fishburne, for example, is an executive producer on this show as well as a costar. So these are people who know media. They know black culture. They know television, and hopefully they'll be able to take this idea which seems like it might be a little touchy, seems like it might offend some people, and really do something cool with it.

MARTIN: Some of the shows that have been successful in recent years, like Shonda Rhimes vehicles, race is part of it, but not central to it, right? But it's different now. With these - with a show like

"Black-ish," ethnicity is central to it. And I'm just interested in how you feel how that's going to work.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, as you know, I mean, as people of color, we often talk about race. But race is never the sole definer of who we are, right? So even though the show's maybe focused a little bit more on ideas of race, I'm hopeful that the characters won't all be about that.

I don't think the subject matter is as important as the characters. If you feel like you're watching people deal with a racial issue, that's great. If you feel like you're watching a collection of stereotypes deal with a racial issue, you know, that's like an afterschool special or something.

MARTIN: It's interesting that over the years, Eric, the fact is we've talked from year-to-year where some years, there are virtually no people of color in any significant roles on the new offerings. And then all of a sudden, there's this kind of let-many-flowers-bloom happening.

DEGGANS: Right. Right.

MARTIN: What's the critical piece? Is it a critical player like Shonda Rhimes in a position as a showrunner, or is it the census? Or what do you think is the critical piece here?

DEGGANS: One of the critical pieces is that shows that have had diverse casting are being successful. When people see that they can have Shonda Rhimes create a show with Viola Davis - or Lee Daniels, who directed "The Butler," has a show on Fox called "Empire" starring Terrence Howard as the guy who leads a family-run hip-hop music empire. ABC also has a show called "Cristela" that's based on a Latino family. And they also have a show called "Fresh Off The Boat," you mentioned, featuring an Asian-American family. That's the first time we've had a sitcom with an Asian- American family in something like 15 or 20 years.

So I would say imitation is the sincerest form of television. (Laughing) So, you know, if a couple of the shows really take off, people will rush to imitate them the same way they rushed to imitate "The Cosby Show." And conversely, if a lot of these shows don't handle race well, it may be harder to get the networks to opt-in like this, you know, the next season.

So it's important that they handle these themes well and that these shows are successful in their own terms to encourage the industry to keep doing what they've already started.

MARTIN: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. We reached him at his home office in St. Petersburg, Fla. Eric, thank you.

DEGGANS: Always fun to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.