Press tour: ABC goes diverse with 'Black-ish,' 'Cristela'
"If you look at shows now that seem to lack diversity, they actually feel dated. America doesn't look like that anymore, and people want to see an America that looks like where they live."
This was ABC entertainment president Paul Lee at his press tour executive session, discussing by far the most notable aspect of the network's freshman lineup of shows for next season. Just among the newbies debuting in fall are "Black-ish," starring Anthony Anderson as an affluent African American executive who's worried his kids are losing touch with their culture; "How to Get Away with Murder," ABC's latest Shonda Rhimes-produced series, starring Viola Davis as a criminal law professor; "Cristela," starring Latina comedian Cristela Alonzo (who also created it); and "Selfie," a "Pygmalion" riff that casts John Cho in the Henry Higgins role. Among the shows on the bench for mid-season: "Fresh Off the Boat," about an Asian-American family (based on Eddie Huang's memoir of the same name); and "American Crime," created by John Ridley and featuring a diverse cast that includes both Felicity Huffman and Benito Martinez. In a business where the default casting mode is "white people, and lots of them," it's a much more unusual and promising collection of actors.
"It is a mission statement to reflect America," Lee said of the approach in both picking shows and casting them this time around. "That's our job. And that's not so much diversity as authenticity... We love having a diverse slate, but we feel those shows are very relateable. When I watch 'Fresh Off the Boat,' when I watch 'Black-ish,' when I watch 'Cristela,' I am one of those families, and that's why I think they're going to succeed."
Despite many questions on the subject, Lee knew better than to let things get too self-congratulatory. Asked about what was the tipping point that led to a slate like this, Lee replied, "Let's not pretend we're there yet. We're taking a very good step along that journey.
"To be able to pull this off, you need not just stars on air," he added. "You need the storytellers, and you need the executives."
Lee had the built-in advantage of having two veteran Rhimes-produced shows on the schedule ("Murder" will air on Thursdays at 10, after "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal"), Ridley is coming off of an Oscar for writing "12 Years A Slave," and Anthony Anderson is a popular star who came up with the idea, and at least at first will have a veteran showrunner in Larry Wilmore in charge. (Wilmore will have to leave at some point this season to star in his post-"Daily Show" Comedy Central series.) There aren't a lot of entrenched, powerful storytellers of color in the TV business, and ABC has relationships with several of them. (The network announced an overall deal with Ridley this morning.)
What's unusual isn't just the composition of these casts, but the fact that so many of these shows ("Black-ish" in particular) explicitly make race into their subject.
"Specificity is so key to great television and great storytelling, and you can smell if something is an authentic piece," Lee argued.
One of the running gags of the "Black-ish" pilot is that one of Anderson's sons wants a bar mitzvah, which prompted a reporter to bring up a pre-existing ABC show that has been less willing or able to get into ethnic and cultural distinctions, suggesting, "I think 'Black-ish' will mention a bar mitzvah before 'The Goldbergs' does."
"I don't think there's anybody in the country who watches 'Goldbergs' and doesn't think it's about a Jewish family," Lee argued. "We have so much support and respect for Adam. He has such a fantastic comedic attack on the family he grew up in... When he's ready to tell that story, he'll tell that story. We're not going to push him toward it or keep him away from it."
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org