Talking Fall TV on NPR: Even when people of color star, they rarely see others who look like them
For me, about halfway through the pilot episode of The Mindy Project, it was official: I love watching Mindy Kaling.
It's not just that her new Fox sitcom nails a pop culture-savvy, fresh comedic voice looking at life and love for young thirtysomethings, focused on a hopelessly romantic doctor struggling to make reality match the rom coms she grew up on.
It's that, as an Indian American woman of a certain shade and body type, she looks so different from the Katherine Heigls and Jennifer Anistons who came before her in the romantic comedy world.
But I also noticed something else about the world Kaling, a former writer on NBC's The Office, built for herself on Fox.
There's no one else who looks like her in it for very long.
In other words, the show's core cast -- the characters we'll see each week and the guys who pop up as her various love interests -- are all white. Which makes you feel as if diversity can only go so far -- even in a sitcom executive produced by and starring a woman of color.
I noticed the same situation in CBS' new show Elementary, a revamp of the Sherlock Holmes legend starring Lucy Liu as a new school Dr. Watson. But when I asked the producers if we might see storylines referencing Dr. Joan Watson's ethnicity as well as her gender -- there's a bit of early sexual tension played up in the pilot -- producer Carl Beverly told me this:
"I think you maximize diversity by not speaking to it," he said. "Our society reflects all kinds of cultures and all kinds of people. We coexist, and I think by putting her, by putting Lucy in the show and not speaking to it, it just speaks to the way that we live our lives in society."
Um, not really. What not referencing her ethnicity maximizes is the comfort of TV producers, who don't have to worry about offending viewers by getting something wrong or putting too many people of color in a show playing to audiences which are still predominantly white.
We're past the days when most new TV shows had no people of color in them. But most series still only feature characters of color as buddies or sidekicks; the starring role remains a glass ceiling for many.
I pulled together a commentary on this for NPR, just to talk about how the struggle for ethnic balance in television is sometimes about encouraging producers to go beyond casting one character of color isolated from others like them. Sometimes, it's about using that character to pull in a whole host of characters to add a new flavor to the storytelling and bring a different culture into the spotlight.
Check it out below.