What a thing is America and its race issue.
Mere months after Ferguson, mere months after the crisis about a wave of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S. border from Central American countries, seething resentment continues.
So along comes Black-ish (ABC, City, 9:30 p.m.) a little, wee comedy notable for the fact that it features a well-off black family. This, you know, rarely happens on mainstream U.S. TV. It has garnered the show a lot of attention and praise for ABC.
Meanwhile on the drama front, Thursday brings How to Get Away with Murder. More on that tomorrow. But, note you, the new series is already at the heart of a toxic race issue.
The New York Times' TV critic, Alessandra Stanley, introduced readers to How to Get Away with Murder by assessing the work of its producer, Shonda Rhimes. Generally positive, the piece about Rhimes, who is black, praised her as creator and showrunner of Grey's Anatomy, spinoff Private Practice and the hit political thriller series Scandal. It referenced "angry black women" at the core of these shows and moved on to reference a similar setup on Murder and noted that its star, Viola Davis, is "older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. Washington," which connects to Scandal star Kerry Washington.
All sorts of fury was unleashed. Rhimes took to Twitter to note she's not the creator of the new Murder show, but the producer. The creator is Peter Nowalk, a white man who has written for Scandal and Grey's Anatomy. Others weighed in, attacking The Times. It was all very angry and ugly. As summarized by Variety – "The story was taken to task by Rhimes and plenty of other readers for a tone that struck many as being tone-deaf and racist in parts."
It's interesting that what "black" means is mocked gently in Black-ish. It's a show about a family. Mom, one Dr. Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) banters with Dad, an advertising exec (Anthony Anderson) about how "black" the family truly is. Mom jokes, "If I'm not really black, then could someone please tell my hair and my ass!" The kids don't want black culture imposed on them. Granddad, played by Laurence Fishburne (who's also a producer), shows up to make gloriously deadpan, subversive comments about this family's struggle to be authentically black.
ABC is getting praise for airing the show and putting it on immediately after Modern Family (ABC, City, 9 p.m.), which returns tonight. And by the way, Nashville returns just after it (ABC, 10 p.m.).
What we can learn from the presence of Black-ish and the fuss over Rhimes reacting to The New York Times, is, first, that both mainstream TV and mainstream media in the U.S. struggle to understand, accept and portray the race issue. Normally, the issue is covered with an earnestness and careful consideration of potential hurt and insult. In coverage of the music industry in general, lines are more blurred. The work of black performers is covered without much tiptoeing around the issue of race.
Television sparks something else, though. It is a fact that a toxic and troubling element of race in America is the failure of white people to understand the experience of black people, and failure of many black citizens to grasp the perspective of white Americans. Failure to, in the old adage, walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Of course, Rhimes was infuriated by The New York Times piece, even if it heaped high praise on her work.
Comedy can only help. Black-ish is, on the evidence of its beginning, funny, sweet, droll and occasionally sharp. Remember when, two years ago, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden was on Meet the Press to discuss the issue of gay marriage? He suddenly turned TV and pop-culture pundit. "When things really began to change is when the social culture changes," Biden said. "I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody's ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they're beginning to understand." Yep, remember that on the matter of race and rage. What a thing is American TV.
Also airing tonight
Mugshot (TVOntario, 9 p.m.) is a wonderful doc to seek out if you have access to TVO. It's about the history and many possible readings of those iconic photos of suspects and criminals. To some, the mug shot is a jokey curiosity and to others it represents layers of meaning. It is, for a start, a great leveller – the rich and famous are diminished to ordinariness in mug shots. And the argument is made that in the picture, the person is presented with formidable clarity. It is, too, a matter of seeing different conventions of portraiture. Charming, fascinating program.