When former Friends star Matthew Perry was developing the perfect foil for his new ABC comedy Mr. Sunshine, he knew what kind of personality was needed — a boundlessly optimistic ex-NBA player who would eventually steal the girlfriend of Perry's selfish, tortured character.
What Perry didn't consider was that he'd be contributing to the latest trend on network television: the rise of the interracial couple.
"Race had very little to do with it," Perry said when I asked him about pairing Las Vegas alum James Lesure, who is black, with white actor Andrea Anders, recently seen in the short-lived comedy Better Off Ted. "I wanted this character to be the greatest man in the world and he used to play in the NBA. My character hates (him) because he's so happy and perfect."
Perry's not alone. This season there may be more mixed-race matchups among major characters on network television than ever before, with such relationships featured on Fox's new comedy Traffic Light, Showtime's Shameless, an April comedy on ABC dubbed Happy Endings, NBC's Parenthood and ABC's Emmy-winning comedy hit Modern Family.
It sounds like a laudable goal: a TV world where race and culture have no impact on romance (according to the Pew Research Center, one in seven new marriages in the United States is interracial or interethnic, double the rate in the 1980s).
But some say network TV's reluctance to acknowledge or explain the racial and cultural differences among these couples — with Modern Family as one of the delightful, substantial exceptions — raises questions about how much of a social advance all these newly diverse pairings really are.
Too little, too late
"I think everybody's glossing over the 'how-did-you-get-here?' part, because it feels like it's racist to ask," said Diane Farr, a white actor (Numb3rs, Rescue Me) married to a Korean man in real life, who used her own experiences to write a script on a series about interracial couples for Fox.
Farr makes it clear; she's not talking about Fox's decision last month not to greenlight her script, which some executives said dealt too directly with the subject matter. But she does wonder if TV is too accustomed to following the country's cultural conversations instead of leading them.
"My actual quote would be: TV follows a trend just before the lights are shut out on it," she said, laughing. "I don't think it's racist. I just think it's insulting."
Farr described a meeting late last year convened by Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly of every writer working with the network and every executive developing material at Hollywood's big studios. His staff brought experts in demographics and viewership to talk about how the TV audience was diversifying and what that should mean for their shows.
But since then, Farr has since seen a more disappointing result. "What's frightening is how many scripts I have read that were clearly written about white people and white families where afterwards, the divorced husband, the food server at the coffee shop or the child who was white before is now dubbed in (as a minority)," she said.
"It's jarring, because rarely in American society do you see a mixed-race couple where there's never a comment about it," Farr added. "So welcoming as it seems to put in a black and white couple or Mexican and Asian couple, if everybody else on the series is white, it kind of begs for comment. And without the comment, it kind of feels gratuitous."
A 2007 story in the Los Angeles Times talked about this issue from a different perspective, noting how many TV shows and films at the time relegated black actors, often female, to roles as the best friends of the white star, from Private Practice and Clueless to My Boys, Ghost Whisperer, Ally McBeal, Felicity and The New Adventures of Old Christine.
Now, it seems some interracial couples may be the new Black Best Friend: a way to add diversity to a show's cast without actually fleshing out the culture or lives of the supporting characters of color.
'The last prejudice'
David Caspe, producer of ABC's Happy Endings, said he based that show's interracial couple on his own experiences. "In my group of friends, there happens to be an interracial couple, so I did it," said Caspe, a young producer-writer making his first foray into TV. "It does seem like shows and movies are starting to be less all straight and white, which is good because it's realer."
That's not to say all such differences are ignored or downplayed. ABC's hit Modern Family has turned the differences between Colombian star Sofia Vergara's character and her aging white husband into high comedy. And shows such as Parenthood, Grey's Anatomy and ER occasionally based story lines on their characters' struggles in mixed-race relationships.
Farr has distant hopes her series might be picked up by another TV outlet. But for now, she's focused on the May release of her book Kissing Outside the Lines, based on three years spent tracking 20 interracial couples across the country.
"It really seemed that love was the last prejudice that Americans can openly teach in their homes," she said. "Many parents in America, in private, will tell their kids yes, all people are created equal, but you can't love a black person, or you have to marry an Asian person. I don't think the TV shows we have now have the answer. It's close, but why don't we actually discuss the elephant in the room?"
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at www. tampabay.com/blogs/media.