Diversity in TV: Is the Small Screen Better?

Ever since this year’s Oscar season and #OscarsSoWhite, I can’t shake my nagging observation about the current state of the film and television industry: that TV, the item once relegated as “furniture” on my high school drama teacher’s T-shirt, is now the forerunner of the two mediums.

Lately, the studios are content to churn out sequel after prequel after remake in hopes that a “built-in” demographic will keep following like zombies to the theater.  In fact, The Hollywood Reporter stated that Warner Bros. declared last month they will focus on these silo, or tent pole, type of films even more in the coming years over “homegrown” (read “original”) films.  If I want original content, I turn to television and on-demand outlets like Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netfix.  Yes, there are plenty of superhero TV shows out there, thanks to Disney and The CW, but the resurgence of quality shows and star actors on TV is making the feature film look like the runner-up at the Hollywood town fair.

Tempire-pos-3V also appears to be making natural strides with diversity in comparison to features.  There are the obvious shows on TV that are breaking the ethnic divide: Fresh Off the Boat, the critically acclaimed Empire, Black-ish, and Shonda Rhimes’s show Scandal.  But even beyond these shows, diversity continues on television.  I’m a huge genre fan.  I watch The CW’s The Flash, Freeform’s Shadowhunters, and SyFy’s The Magicians.  Each one of these shows has made a statement through their casting choices, whether they intended to or not.

 

Let’s start with The Flash.  Yes, it is a DC Comic show on The CW, so it falls nicely into Warner Bros.’s silo mission, who owns a stake in DC Comics with CBS and UPN.  But the show is cast wonderfully – and diversely.  Yes, they cast a white lead (Grant Gustin), but let’s take a look at the rest of the cast, shall we?

cisco
Carlos Valdes (he cracks me up!)

Jesse L. Martin (Joe West), Candice Patton (Iris West), and Carlos Valdes (Cisco Ramon/ Vibe) who rocks the comedic and fun-loving Cisco so brilliantly that it’s spawned his own spin-off show The Flash: Chronicles of Cisco.  Granted, in the comic book it appears that the character of Vibe is Hispanic.  Thankfully, casting kept that character trait with Carlos Valdes.  Where casting went beyond is with Martin and Patton.  In the comic books, Iris looks more Irish than African American.

The Flash Iris
Candice Patton as Iris West in The Flash on the CW

But why white-wash a show in 2014?  The Wests were cast black, and thank goodness because it brought Jesse L. Martin to the show.  Martin is an amazing actor.  His talent to bring depth and honesty to a comic book show astounds me every week.  I love this guy.  I want to see him in everything!  The Flash is a case of not casting for looks or what execs think America wants to see on screen but of talent.  Jesse L. Martin is pure talent.

 

jesse l martin
Jesse L. Martin from The Flash

Shadowhunters and The Magicians are two more examples of casting diverse actors when the characters were written very differently in the novels.  The character of Luke in The Mortal Instruments is never mentioned as being black, but casting chose former Old Spice model and actor Isaiah Mustafa for the role.  They then proceed to cast half Lebanese/half Mexican Emeraude Toubia as Isabelle Lightwood and Alberto Rosende as Simon.  Isabelle is basically white in the novel as well, with long black hair – if that counts for anything.  Simon is Jewish, and remains so in the TV show, but is portrayed by a Hispanic actor.  David Castro is Raphael, the Hispanic vampire, and Harry Shum, Jr. is Magnus, the warlock who is described as Asian in the books.  Although Cassandra Clare, author of The Mortal Instrument series, wrote diverse characters, the show took it a step further by creating an even more diverse cast.

cast crop
The cast of Freeform’s Shadowhunters

Katherine McNamara, who plays Clary, the main character in Shadowhunters, told Novel2Screen in an exclusive interview that she believes diversity in film and TV is extremely important.  “I’m overjoyed to be part of a show that’s aware of what [diversity] can add to the story and the different elements and different perspectives that it can give, just like casting someone with a different ethnicity.  Yes, Alberto and Emeraude weren’t written as ethnic, but in casting diverse actors in these roles, it brings interest and more relatability to the show.  Honestly, it is a more accurate portrayal of reality as we know it.”

If any book I’ve recently read is white-washed it is The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  Eliot is written as gay/bisexual, and portrayed that way on the show, but I can’t recall any ethnically diverse characters.  Thankfully, the TV show shook that up.  Dean Fogg is a stout white dude in the book, but the show cast Rick Worthy.  The character of Penny is where The Magicians gets interesting.  In the book, he’s just a Caucasian punk with a mohawk.  In the show – he’s the stunning Arjun Gupta.

PENNY
Arjun Gupta in SyFy’s The Magicians

In a recent Facebook podcast where he said growing up the only images he saw on screen of South Asian men were asexual and unrelatable.  Now, he can destroy those stereotypes on The Magicians where he plays the incredible sexy, talented, intelligent, and sarcastic Penny.  In one episode of The Magicians he got to play the racist stereotype of South Asian men in film while simultaneously pointing out the inherent racism in it.

What I love about these three shows is that it doesn’t make a spectacle out of casting diverse actors.  They aren’t black or South Asian or Hispanic to make a statement.  They are simply cast because they are great actors.  And as Katherine McNamara said, it really is a more accurate portrayal of our society.

Is this a trend that will last in television?  Are we seeing a changing of the guard where producers are ready for shows depicting all Americans, not just a percentage of us?  Robin R. Means Coleman, an associate professor and the author of African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy, isn’t so sure.  He doesn’t agree with my sentiment that diversity is on the rise in TV.  He stated in a Huffington Post article that TV follows a pattern.  “About every 20 years, there is a surge in representations of blacks on television,” Coleman says. “In the ‘70s, there was a particular surge of blacks and black situation comedies: everything from Good Times and The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son — those kind of representations were being offered up.”  He believes the cyclical pattern with eventually return to casting minorities as a minority.

One of the reasons this Oscar season was so charged was due to the USC study called the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity that was released showing the pathetic lack of diversity in films.  It examined the 109 films released by major studios (including art-house divisions) in 2014 and 305 scripted, first-run TV and digital series across 31 networks and streaming services that aired from September 2014 to August 2015.  Over 11,000 speaking characters were analyzed for gender, racial and ethnic representation, and LGBT status.  The study showed that out of 414 films, only a third of speaking characters were female, and only 28.3% were from minority groups — about 10% less than the makeup of the U.S. population.  The report confirmed that TV is doing a better job in regards to diversity, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.  And, in case you are curious, only 2% of speaking characters were LGBT, which makes both Shadowhunters and The Magicians rock star shows with multiple characters identifying as LGBT.

Two weeks ago the L.A. Times published an article about diversity overseas and how studios have to market their films differently to international audiences.  It is an eye-opening article.  Especially when you see how leads in films, like John Boyega of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, are diminished to almost nothing on the poster overseas due to their ethnicity.  starwarskeyart

So, perhaps diversity isn’t just an American issue.  It’s a global issue, one that Hollywood can start correcting now.

*Photos courtesy of Freeform, SyFy, The CW, Disney, and FOX

Follow Chris on Twitter @ACCooksonWriter or “like” our Facebook page Novel2Screen for more updates on your favorite novel-to-screen adaptations, including weekly recaps of “Outlander”!  For more on diversity read here.

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3 thoughts on “Diversity in TV: Is the Small Screen Better?

    1. I think what I find more fascinating is how Hollywood doesn’t cast talented ethnic actors in romantic roles. That’s one thing I love The Magicians. Penny is great! And Girl on the Train had a chance to do the same, but chose not to.

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