More Shades of Faces Pop Up on Prime Time
BOSTON — 'Cinderella" comes in all colors - the story appears in every culture of the world. And though the details change, it is always a story of innocence triumphant. In America, Cinderella is usually served up in the European, snow-white version. But ABC changes all that with a charming multiethnic update of the classic for television.
"Wonderful World of Disney: Cinderella" airs Sunday, Nov. 2, 7-9 p.m., and it is truly a tribute to inclusiveness at the family hour. Headed by Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother and Brandy ("Moesha") as Cinderella, this musical extravaganza comes as close to "colorblind" casting as possible, with African-Americans, white Americans, and Asian-Americans chosen for their various talents.
Things have been changing on the small screen, and while most sitcoms are still more or less segregated, many television serial dramas are trying harder to reflect how America really looks. "NYPD Blue," "ER," "Michael Hayes," "Nothing Sacred," "Touched by an Angel," and "Star Trek: Voyager," to name a few of the best, keep their casts' racial mix carefully stirred.
Jeffrey Mahon, professor of Ministry, Media, and Culture at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, points out that the dramatic format is inherently more adaptable to multiethnic casting than the half-hour, family-based sitcom. Situation dramas have more time, many more locations and characters, and reflect cross sections of society. "Police dramas in particular have emerged to be about the tensions of modern society. The police station has evolved into a kind of portrait of the culture," he says. Hospital and crime dramas also cast good and bad guys in all shades.
Though there were plenty of exceptions in the past ("The Cosby Show" was a rock for years), TV catered to the dominant white culture until cable took up the slack in the late 1980s, according to Fred MacDonald, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois. Suddenly there was a lot more competition, and upstart networks Fox, UPN, and the WB developed the potential market.
"It's not that one [network] was racist and the other wasn't," he says. "It's that finally someone recognized that there was a segment of the audience that was not being served and went after it."
The networks have been criticized over the past few seasons for their blanched looks. So this season, they have gone to some trouble to put more color in their cheeks, with new sitcoms like "The Gregory Hines Show" on CBS, "Union Square" on NBC, "Between Brothers" on Fox, and dramas like "413 Hope St." (Fox) and "Players" (NBC).
"The Gregory Hines Show" was not originally written for a black actor. Executive producer Mitchell Katlin says he and partner Nat Bernstein wanted to write about their own experiences as dads.
"We do take pride that we are good parents.... We didn't purposefully choose white or black. However, I am very proud that Gregory says he is proud to do the show." Mr. Hines has reason to be: He is excellent in it, and it is one of the best sitcoms on - well written, character driven, and engaged with real life problems.
While "Union Square" has not yet quite jelled, it is promising. And here again, the producer-writers wanted to reflect New York the way they have experienced it - so the owner of the little diner is Jamaican, the young writer is Jewish, the irrepressible actress is Latina, and all the others a colorful variety. Like most sitcoms, the unrelated characters make up a kind of family, with the sardonic owner standing in for dad. The character was written originally for an Ed Asner type, but when Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, who is Jamaican, read for the part, laying the accent on and clipping his punch lines, he beat out all the competition.
Though TV still looks more black and white than rainbow (there are still few Hispanics, Asians, Indians, Arabs, native Americans, and others), diversity is growing and may represent a kind of collective fantasy - a projection of our desire to make a multiethnic community work, as Dr. Mahon points out. It is inherently a wish-fulfillment medium.
And that brings us back to the idealism of fairy tales. "If you are going to do a classic fairy tale," says producer Debra Martin Chase, "it ought to be told in such a way that all children can identify with it. These are our myths, and without people of different colors, you send a message that these dreams are not available to everyone."
Asked if TV is more open to minority actors, Ms. Chase, who is African-American, says, "There is still a way to go, but I think this is truly the harvesttime."