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In 2010-11 TV season, NBC almost single-handedly turns diversity tide

Undercovers Once upon a time, the two characters played by Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in NBC's new drama Undercovers would have been BBFs -- the black best friends creator J.J. Abrams often sprinkled in past TV hits such as Alias, Felicity and Fringe.

It is hard to know exactly how Abrams' new series will deal with ethnicity and culture, since the pilot episode hasn't been delivered to critics yet. But the very fact that the producer decided to center his buzzed-about new series on a black couple for no obvious reason than the fact he liked the actors may be an important step forward for diversity on screen.

Outlaw And it's not just Abrams' show which is reflecting this change at NBC, will become the rainbow network this fall. In NBC's Outlaw, Jimmy Smits plays a Latino Supreme Court justice who leaves the job to start a law practice; NBC's The Event features Blair Underwood as a black president confronting a widespread conspiracy inside his own administration he didn't know about; and the comedy Outsourced features an American executive moving to India to develop a customer care call center on the cheap.

There's some ethnic diversity elsewhere; Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is continuing CBS' impressive recent tradition of casting actors of color in high profile crime dramas, topping the network;s planned spin off of Criminal Mind slated for midseason. The CW's Nikita stars former Hong Kong action queen Maggie Q as the latest incarnation of La Femme Nikita's amnesiac assassin.

Typical roles get divvied up in other ways, too. Shield alum Michael Chiklis is a mopey husband who cares for his family while his wife works a high-powered job -- until the entire family gets superpowers, like Heroes-meets-the Incredibles.

There are typical ethnic best friends, too -- from Lost alum Daniel Dae Kim and Battlestar Galactica veteran Grace Park in CBS' Hawaii Five-O remake to James McDaniel's weary cop on ABC's Detroit 1-8-7 and Windell Middlebrooks (the Miller Hi-Life guy from the 1 second Super Bowl commercials) and Wire alum Sonja Sohn on ABC's Body of Proof. (ABC, after fielding some of the most diverse series on TV, has mostly because the new home for BBFs in new fall shows).

As often happens with these things, one network -- in this case, NBC -- has obviously made diversity in casting a priority (in my experience, you don't get this kind of wide palette of characters without intentional effort). 

Robin-batman-kid-costume  To explain why such images matter, I always talk about a magazine ad I remember from my childhood, featuring a young black kid with a towel pinned to his shirt, looking into the mirror like he's imagining himself to be a superhero. Only the face staring back at him in the mirror is a white superhero in full costumer, because the child could never imagine someone looking him who is also a hero.

Network TV is still the biggest stage in media. It's where our most important fantasies as a media consuming public take place. The image created and recycled there teach us what to expect from others and what to expect from ourselves; who we are and what we can hope to be.

I'm writing this post, in part, to flesh out thoughts for a discussion I'll be having on NPR's Tell Me More today on this subject -- the fall TV season and how it relates to images of racial minorities in media.

So, even though I have only watched one pilot completely through so far -- Chiklis' entertaining No Ordinary Family -- I'm hopeful NBC succeeds well enough that the trend spreads.

Because a nation diverse as ours deserves a slate of compelling characters on TV to match.

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[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:08pm]

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