Magazine article Variety

TV Turns to America

Magazine article Variety

TV Turns to America

Article excerpt

Four years ago, Alan Yang wrote a pilot about a father and son. Both characters were white.

At the time, Yang, whose own father is from Thiwan, was a writer for "Parks and Recreation," and Greg Daniels, a "Parks" executive producer, was advising Yang as he worked on the script. "Why not make the father and son Asian?" Daniels asked. Yang refused.

"It wasn't even other people that shut it down," Yang says. "I shut it down in my own brain."

What Yang now calls his "misguided conservatism" arose from a practical concern: What if no one wanted to make a comedy about an Asian father and son? After all, since the crash and burn of Margaret Cho's "All-American Girl" two decades ago, shows revolving around the lives of nonwhite families had been few and far between, especially on the broadcast networks.

Cut to 2015, when "Master of None," the Netflix comedy Yang created with "Parks and Rec" star Aziz Ansari, tackled issues of race, class and gender head on, winning raves from critics and fans. Few shows have done a more thorough job of exposing the absurd notion that American society is post-racial.

One episode singled out for praise was "Parents," in which Dev (Ansari) tried to connect with his father, a successful physician who'd emigrated to America from India decades before. At one point, Dev and his dad go out to dinner with Dev's best friend, Brian, and his father, who was born in Taiwan.

"The seeds of the (pilot) are a little bit in the 'Parents' episode," Yang says. But because he and Ansari weren't censoring themselves when they wrote the show, what was depicted in that installment was "more true to life and more true to my actual experiences," he adds.

"Master of None" is part of a wave of buzzed-about comedies and dramas that are taking on race in bracing, irreverent and unapologetic ways. In the past few years, "Black-ish," "Orange Is the New Black," "Fresh Off the Boat," "Jane the Virgin," "The Carmichael Show," "How to Get Away With Murder," "Empire," "Scandal," "American Crime" and "The People v. . O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" are just a few of the shows that have openly acknowledged how far America has to go when it comes to issues of institutional racism and interpersonal bias.

The willingness to explore these thorny topics has paid dividends: The shows have received more than their share of media and awards attention, as well as devotion from fans, who have long been hungry to see a diversity of characters depicted on the small screen.

Yang said he was a little startled recently when a bartender praised the comedy at an awards event. "He was an older white guy, probably in his 70s," Yang says. "Very different types of people responding positively has been great."

Another Netflix show was among the first of this recent wave to put race squarely at the center of its agenda - and win kudos in the bargain. "Orange Is the New Black" started out as the tale of a middle-class white woman's sojourn in prison, but the ensemble of characters of all races and backgrounds quickly became the show's main draw and helped put Netflix's originals on the map.

In the short period since the 2013 premiere of "Orange," the amount of television being made has exploded - partly driven by the arrival of Amazon, Hulu and Netflix as serious players in the scripted-TV game - with a concurrent uptick in the number of shows willing to take on race and employ casts that reflect the demographic reality of America, the population of which is almost 40% nonwhite. No one would argue that the TV industry, which is still predominantly white, has arrived at a place of true inclusion. But there is a growing awareness that TV needs to have more writers, creators and characters of color, and must expand the kinds of protagonists who get their stories told. According to GLAAD, in the 2010-11 season, 77% of broadcast network characters were white. In the 2015-16 season, that number had dropped to 66%. …

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