My latest NPR adventures: Loving the antihero and asking if white TV viewers will watch black casts
Got two nuggests from NPR this week; the audio version of a column I wrote not long ago about TV's antiheroes -- delivered just in time for Sunday's big season finale for Dexter -- and a discussion with Washington D.C.-based host Kojo Nnamdi about ethnic and cultural diversity in film and television.
The antihero essay is one that's been percolating a while. I've always loved a good antihero -- just ask my wife how tirelessly I quote Michael and Vito Corleone from the antiheroic classic Godfather movies -- and this essay is a quick way of exploring the reasons why they might particularly resonate these days.
I joined Kojo's show in midstream Thursday, trying to add context to a discussion of diversity in TV and film roles. See excerpts from the transcript below for some of my words; the NPR essay is below that:
NNAMDI - Thank you kindly. You wrote recently about the rise of the black best friend on television shows. Why do you think we see so many black actors cast as the buddy, or sometimes adversary, to white leads?
DEGGANS - I think network TV is essentially a little skittish about centering big budget TV shows on black characters. And the last time we saw a news show advanced that way, it didn't do very well. It was a spy drama on NBC (J.J. Abrams' Undercovers), and it featured a couple of African-American -- well, not African-American actors, but black actors who weren't very well known to the general public, and it didn't turn out very well. So I think the next best thing to avoid being criticized for a lack of diversity, is to take characters that would normally be white and just cast them with black people, or people of color, Latinos and East Indians are often cast.
You rarely see much of their culture in these characters, and their characters rarely have much to do beyond supporting the white lead, and that's the problem. And you talked a minute ago, you asked the question about why we should care about this stuff, or why, you know, do we expect too much for entertainment. And I think the problem that people of color have always had in America is that there's not a lot of us in a lot of corners of America, particularly black people.
We're concentrated in urban centers. And so the way that America gets to know is through this art. They get to know us through movies and TV, and video productions. And if we're not careful about the images that are portrayed there, then when it comes time to make decisions about policies that affect us, people don't have a really great understanding of what we're about, and all you have to do is look at, you know, what some of the presidential candidates have been saying about poor people and how to give them jobs and how to teach them a work ethic to show that there are some people in this country who are very powerful and very well traveled who don't seem to know a whole lot about people of color in their own country.
NNAMDI - Eric, you say black people who watch a show with a mostly or all-white cast, but that white people won't watch a show with a mostly or all-black cast. Why do you think that is, and what evidence do you have to back that claim up? "The Cosby Show" that we mentioned early seems to suggest different.
DEGGANS - Well, you know, what I said -- I didn't say it quite that explicitly, but I do -- I do feel that because black folks are used to being sort of minorities in a pop culture sense, we are used to going to see movies that star a culture that is not really our own. We're used to rooting for Tom Cruise, we're used to rooting for Matt Damon, we're used to seeing Meryl Streep. And in the rare instances when we get movies from a Tyler Perry or a Denzel Washington that are centered on our culture, of course we love those too.
But I think white viewers are much less accustomed to placing themselves inside pop culture where they are the minority culture. And, you know, one of the things I looked at for example with shows that had majority minority cast, but weren't explicitly quote unquote "black" shows. You look at a show like "Homicide: Life on the Street" when it was on NBC. For a long time, the majority of the characters on that show were people of color.
Now the show was challenging and it was very different, and it was not your typical police show, but it always struggled in the ratings, and one of the things the producers said to me was, you know, we wonder if it's just the fact that there are so many black people in the cast.
NNAMDI - "The Wire" apparently had similar problems.
DEGGANS - I was going to say David Simon from "The Wire" was very explicit about saying that. He felt that, you know, the highest ratings that the show got was when it advanced a story line -- "The Wire" by the way, for people who don't know, was an HBO series that was set in Baltimore. Three seasons of the series mostly focused on poor neighborhoods in Baltimore, but there was one season, the second one, that dealt with white characters that worked along the ports and the waterfront in Baltimore, and that was the highest rated season.
So David took from that a sense that, you know, it is hard sometimes to get white audiences to watch shows with a majority black cast even when the show itself is not necessarily about black culture or isolationist in the way that maybe a Tyler Perry movie can feel or a Spike Lee movie can feel.