If there’s a statement to be made on the small screen every Wednesday, it’s this: Black folk are not all the same.
Viewers can go full hip-hop soap opera with “Empire,” which finally returns to Fox this week after a winter hiatus. They can find the funny on ABC’s “Black-ish,” a sitcom about a black family in suburbia, or TV Land’s “Soul Man,” about a singer turned pastor. They can tweet along live to WGN’s “Underground,” a series inspired by the Underground Railroad, following slaves as they plan their escape to freedom.
I love that we are no longer reduced to just the sidekick, the angry black man or woman, the eye-candy or goofy comic relief.
There is no better example of dimensional black storytelling than on Wednesday nights. But for the first time in a very long time, the entire week of television offers a lot of options for how African-Americans are portrayed.
Sundays we can watch NBC’s “The Carmichael Show,” which resurrects ’80s family shows. Thursdays on ABC we can count on producer Shonda Rhimes to give us all of the Olivia Pope, Miranda Bailey and Annalise Keating #blackgirlmagic we can swoon after. BET brings back “Being Mary Jane” in the fall. And there are a lot of strong leads on favorites like “The Walking Dead,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Originals” and “Grimm.”
“I think people really have spoken, and the demand for diversity on television is being answered,” Jawn Murray, TV host and editor of alwaysalist.com, told me on the phone from Washington, D.C. “And networks are seeing the ratings go up. ‘Underground’ broke records at WGN. ‘Empire’ is still the number one show on prime-time television. There are so many great and diverse shows on television like ‘The Carmichael Show’ and ‘Black-ish,’ and I think when a show doesn’t appear to reflect diversity, ratings sink.
“Look at ‘The Catch’ (the crime drama that debuted on ABC last Thursday). The premiere numbers were disappointingly low. A lot of the promotion for it seemed to show the image of yesteryear. It didn’t embody the diversity of so many of the other shows. So viewers tuned out.”
Thanks to the beauty of the DVR, I support all of these diverse shows.
But there’s still work to do. Black women still lack healthy friendships on the small screen. More than that, black folk don’t count for all people of color. We don’t see nearly enough Asians or Latinos. George Lopez returns to television at 9 p.m. Wednesday with his new comedy series, “Lopez.” And there’s been some great TV with “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Dr. Ken,” “Jane the Virgin” and a few strong characters on “Elementary,” “Shades of Blue,” “The Flash,” “Quantico” and the Shonda Rhimes shows. We need more.
White people can be entertained by baby-mama drama and backstabbing on your typical soap operas. They’ve never had to worry about a movie or television show corrupting the way America views their race.
People of color know that their portrayal on television still plays into America’s psyche. For that reason, there was a time when shows like “Empire” or Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and the Have Nots” on OWN couldn’t survive the backlash because we’d be too ashamed of how immoral and scandalous the families can be.
There are humans whose only contact or perception of black folk has been built on fictional characters. I’ve met people who assume I must have grown up like “The Cosby Show’s” Huxtables because in their minds, successful people of color must come from a fancy brownstone and have a doctor and a lawyer for parents. Others think if I show even a little bit of anger, I am about to morph into an Atlanta housewife and throw a bottle. Because stereotypes.
So yes, balanced representation matters. Tune into change.
Wednesday watch list
▪ “Empire” returns at 8 p.m. on Fox.
▪ “Black-ish” airs at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. (New episodes return next week.)
▪ New episodes of “Underground” air at 9 p.m. on WGN.
▪ “Lopez” premieres at 9 p.m. on TV Land, with “The Soul Man” following at 9:30.