Two writers covering mass incarceration from two different local angles were honored by the Pulitzer Prize committee. We explore the work of Tim Eberly and James Forman, Jr.
As fall begins, a new slate of TV shows is hitting the airwaves. Some watchers are celebrating the levels of diversity depicted across the networks, while a recent New York Times essay about producer and hit-maker Shonda Rhimes has others decrying the persistence of racial and gender stereotypes in the industry. We convene a round table of TV critics to consider the state of diversity and show quality on the small screen.
- Eric Deggans TV Critic, NPR; Author, 'Race-Baiter: How Media Wield Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation'
- Hank Stuever TV critic, The Washington Post; author, ‘Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere’ (2005) and ‘Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present’ (2010)
- Willa Paskin TV critic, Slate
Previewing The Fall 2014 TV Lineup
How To Get Away With Murder
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Fall has arrived and that means it's time to pull out your sweaters, take the family apple picking and get ready for the raking of the leaves. It's also time to sit back, relax and tune in to a new slate of TV shows and returning seasons of old favorites. Premieres are rolling out already and the season's not without substantial drama both on screen and off.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to discuss it is Hank Stuever, the Washington Post TV critic and joins me in studio. Good to see you again, Hank.
MR. HANK STUEVERHi, how are you?
NNAMDIJoining us from the Argo studios in New York City is Willa Paskin, TV critic at Slate. Willa Paskin, thank you for joining us.
MS. WILLA PASKINThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd we're expecting shortly the arrival of Eric Deggans, the NPR's TV critic. But you can already call us at 800-433-8850. Eric, are you there? Oh, Eric's not there yet. Eric will be joining us shortly. You can call us at 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow with your questions or comments about the current television season. Let's start with the controversy for those who may not know her work, who have not met Olivia Pope or been to Seattle Grace Hospital. Hank, who is Shonda Rhimes and just how unique is she in the TV world as a show runner and hit maker?
STUEVERWell, Shonda Rhimes is a successful head of a factory that makes good TV shows that people like. And, incidentally, she's black. I don't know if -- sometimes this seems to be the subject, what's around her. But, you know, she's made "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice." She's put her thumbprint on a new show "How to Get Away With Murder" that starts tonight starring Viola Davis.
NNAMDIHas there ever been a successful television producer, a black female as Shonda Rhimes has been?
STUEVEROh, in the entire history of television I guess I could safely say no.
NNAMDIYeah, I'd say so myself.
NNAMDINot at all. 800-433-8850. Well, last week the New York Times ran a piece by TV critic Alessandra Stanley with a lead that stopped many readers in their tracks. It read, "When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called how to get away with being an angry black woman. Eric Deggans joins us now by -- from NPR Studios. He's NPR's TV critic. Eric, thank you for joining us.
MR. ERIC DEGGANSThanks for having me.
NNAMDIEric, reaction to that piece in the New York Times was swift and, well, angry. Stanley has said her intent was to pray Shonda Rhimes for breaking stereotypes, but a lot of ink has since been spilled over the myriad contradictions and problems of the piece since it first appeared last Friday. You highlight two main problems at the heart of this and many of our modern racial controversies. Eric, what are they?
DEGGANSWell, I think one big problem is that people are not taking the time to learn how to talk about race in ways that further the conversation. So when she went to sort of write about this hot-button issue, she didn't seem to have a lot of tools in her toolbox for talking about this in a way that made sense. And then I think the other big thing that's going on here is that black folks always have to deal with when we express intense emotion being misunderstood as being angry. You know, that's a common stereotype that we have to fight.
DEGGANSAnd so I think what this writer did was look at characters, particularly like Olivia Pope from "Scandal" and say that she's angry, when really she's emotional, she's overwrought, she's often intense. But she's not often angry. And angry is such a negative terms to put on someone. It's almost a way to dismiss and discount their emotions. And so she kind of -- Alessandra Stanley, the author of this piece, walked into this huge debate and controversy over marginalizing black women by calling them angry. And she had no idea she was doing it because she didn't realize all these tropes and stereotypes, the power of them. She didn't realize the power of this stuff that she was playing with.
DEGGANSAnd so I think those two trends came together to really make for an awful piece. I almost thought about saying, you know, her autobiography's going to be called, you know, how to get away with writing clumsily about race. But I guess she didn't get away with it, so there you have it.
NNAMDINot on this occasion, certainly not. Willa, you have profiled Shonda Rhimes in the past and noted more recently that her characters are quote unquote "angry the way that a bird is bipedal. It's not false, but it's not to the point." What do we miss about Rhimes' work if we focus strictly on the racial and gender issues that so many have been parsing this past week?
PASKINWell, you know, I think that obviously the racial and gender issues in Shonda Rhimes' work are a big reason that they sort of stand out in the TV landscape. But obviously she's making these shows, "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal," that are really big hits in a time when shows are not really big hits, especially for the network. You know, "Scandal" is unique because it has accrued more and more ratings because it kind of gets attention and all these people tweeting about it in a way that's really rare for any drama right now, certainly one on ABC.
PASKINYou know, so I think Shonda really makes TV shows that are extremely fun to watch. They're extremely entertaining. And then especially in the case of "Scandal," they're up to something really new and unique and they're so fast and so dark and twisted. And the characters are so horrible but you kind of are interested in them. Anyway, it's really operatic. It's melodramatic. It's sort of a hyper drama almost. And that, when we're just talking about her strictly through the lens of her being black, of her being a woman is -- sort of always obviously kind of downgrades what she's doing.
PASKINYou know, it makes it seem sort of lesser than all the white guys making these very serious antihero shows. When in a way what she's doing is way more original because it's not like that. And we have enough of that.
NNAMDIYou can find Willa's review of "How to Get Away With Murder" just up on Slate. She called it simultaneously fun and somehow wan. That show premiers tonight, as a matter of fact. You can go to our website kojoshow.org and see previews of several of the shows that are out this fall season. You can also go to our website and ask a question or make a comment. Do you think people should hold Shonda Rhimes to an unfair standard because of her race, her gender, both? Maybe you think it's neither. Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIOne of the problems, of course, Hank Stuever, was that Alessandra Stanley identified Shonda Rhimes as the creator of "How to Get Away With Murder." And that was, well, wrong.
STUEVERRight. The creator is a white guy, a gay white guy, Pete Nowalk who is the creator of "How to Get Away With Murder." So that's a factual error. You know, I'm leery of sitting in judgment of a piece that I don't know how it came together or how it got through four editors in the state that it was.
NNAMDIThat's the chance you take in your business.
STUEVERIt is -- well, you know what this thing has brought home is that TV matters to people. And how -- what's on TV and who is on TV and what kind of stories the networks choose to tell and what kind of people they choose to put in them and what kind of people they find to write and produce them, this is all very important to people. A lot of times in our jobs we encounter people thinking that, you know, TV is mostly junk. And I can't launch a counterargument, oh no, TV's mostly great.
STUEVERI mean, there's a lot of great stuff on it, there's a lot of bad stuff on it. But I do think it sinks in and it matters. I mean, when I was here before, we talked about how people in search of affirmation about who they are and how they live are always going to be a little bit heartbroken about what's on TV because TV doesn't really reflect anybody accurately.
STUEVERBut this whole New York Times thing, I mean, you know, it's got the New York Times now looking at how they're staffed, how many minorities they have on their staff, especially in their arts and culture department. I find it fascinating that this all started over a TV show.
STUEVERAnd I think if you dropped in to this debate without ever having watched "Grey's Anatomy" or ever having watched "Scandal," you might look at those shows and go, all of this falderal, all of this talk about race and culture and society is about these sort of melodramatic soapy shows, you know, that matter to people. They matter more than just the hour they spend sort of tuned out and tuned in to whatever Olivia Pope is doing.
NNAMDITalk about how much this matters to people, Eric Deggans, even though by doing so you and Hank and Willa will be validating your own career choices. But nevertheless, talk about it because this has led to a firestorm that goes far beyond just the pages of the newspaper.
DEGGANSWell, I'm always willing to defend getting paid to watch television. But -- so one of the reasons why "Scandal" was such a big hit, especially when it kind of flowered midway through its second season, was because, you know, women embrace this show and women of color embrace this show passionately because they saw a kind of -- they saw themselves reflected in a kind of character that they didn't see on TV all that often.
DEGGANSAnd so, like I said earlier, when you write a story in the New York Times that essentially marginalizes that character as an angry black woman or some iteration of an angry black woman, I think there are a lot of fans out there who feel like they're being marginalized. And the reason they like "Scandal" is because "Scandal" subverts all that stuff. It's not just a star -- it was the first drama to star a black woman since the 1970s, right.
DEGGANSSo not only that, but you also have gay characters that are very prominent. You have other ethnicities in the characters in the core cast. You have this whole constellation of characters that are interacting at the highest levels of power in America in a way, frankly, they really don't in real life, right? And so you saw a lot of people whose voices had been stifled see a character where their voices were liberated.
DEGGANSAnd here along comes a story that seems to try to reverse that. And I think that is where you saw this really huge backlash. And then add in the fact that she's -- you know, there's points in the story where you get the sense that she has not watched these shows that closely. And if there's one thing that will anger fans of a show, it's a critic writing about it that doesn't really know the show.
DEGGANSAnd the other critics here will agree with me on that.
DEGGANSThat's when we get into hot water when we're writing about a show that we don't know that well and the fans make us come correct.
DEGGANSSo you put those two things together.
NNAMDIWilla Paskin, given how many platforms Americans are involved with today, I was just wondering, it took me maybe into the third season of "Grey's Anatomy" before I even knew that it was created by an African American woman. How many people do you think have been surprised by this sudden conflict who may simply have known that -- have not known that either "Grey's Anatomy" or "Scandal" was created by a black woman?
PASKINWell, you know, I think at this point, probably not that many. I think Shonda's profile has changed and grown enormously in especially last couple of years basically because of "Scandal" and the kind of hit it was, and kind of the critical hit that it was. So sort of journalist and media outlets began taking her seriously in a different way, and that helps raise someone's profile.
PASKINI think also the truth is that it's very -- as someone who's watched "Grey's" and continues to watch "Grey's" in a scene, probably every episode, it's very clear that the way Shonda writes and talks about race has changed over the course of "Grey's" and certainly over the course of "Scandal" and become much more less subtext and more actual text. Which is just to say when "Grey's Anatomy" started and Shonda, at that point, had not ever worked on TV, she'd written a couple movies, it was -- you know, she was a real newbie, she -- it was remarked upon about how diverse the cast was and how she sort of had practice sort of colorblind casting, casting the person who was best for the part.
PASKINBut it's not that the character spoke about race very often. And for all the conflict on that show, in a way the racial harmony -- it was very idyllic. People didn't even mention it ever. And that was also actually the case at the beginning of "Scandal," which was this show about a black woman who was having an affair with the white president of the United States. And even for the first season-and-a-half of that show, it was sort of -- obviously it was in your face, but it was not discussed.
PASKINAnd that began to change in the second season of "Scandal." You know, Shonda write a scene in which Olivia Pope sort of refers to her circumstances being very Sally Hemings-ish, you know, which is obviously an overt mention. Last season Joe Morton, who plays Olivia's father, gave a speech about how she has to try twice as hard, you know, which was understood as speaking directly to black people in America and their experience.
PASKINSo, you know, the way that these shows discuss race I think has become much more overt and so that actually -- especially the "Scandal," I would be surprised if people didn't know who Shonda Rhimes was at this point.
NNAMDIGot to take a short...
DEGGANSI really have this sense that Shonda has been strategic about how she has approached the casting and the way she talks about race on her shows. It seems like she has eased the network and the public and her fans into, you know, sort of accepting "Grey's Anatomy," accepting "Private Practice" where there were a number of interracial relationships and then accepting a show starring a black woman. And now there's another show starting a black woman right behind that one that's going to debut tonight. And now they're talking more overtly about race on "Scandal."
DEGGANSI mean, one of the mistakes we critics make is that we think some things are too deliberate that are kind of accidental, but this really feels like kind of a master plan clicking into place. And I'm going to give Shonda credit even if she didn't plan it that way.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation of fall TV and troubling Shondaland at 800-433-8850. That's the number you can call to participate in the broadcast. You can go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question, make a comment there and see previews of some of the fall shows coming up. You can also shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the fall TV season with Hank Stuever. He is the Washington Post TV critic. Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic and Willa Paskin is a TV critic at Slate. You can call us at 800-433-8850 with your comments or questions. Let's go to Steven in Baltimore, Md. Steven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVENHi, Kojo and hi to your guests. Maybe two or three years ago I started watching a lot of the seasonal stuff at the end of the season on Netflix or Hulu or basically just go and buy it. And I wonder how that has changed the approach to the shows that are on TV. It seems as though they're getting not only better, but more synchronized to what a certain genre of folks really want to see versus just this mass appeal to everybody.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Hank?
STUEVERThat's a tough one to assess. I mean, everybody -- the caller is attuned to one thing, everybody is aware that TV is changing in a lot of ways.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, allow me to interrupt. Steven, are you talking about network television or television in general?
STEVENIt's network television specifically. Like a lot of the shows that will last a season or two I'll find interesting. And then I'll gorge out on it all at once. And then I'll just continue just to watch -- or wait until the end of the season just to skip the commercials and all of that other stuff.
STUEVERWell, and also at least at the end of the season you're watching the stuff that made it through -- I mean, these next few weeks are kind of do or die for a lot of these shows and you might as well not waste your time. And then, yeah, the episodes stack up and you can binge them at your leisure. You can waste many hours.
NNAMDIWell, one dilemma that viewers face is whether to watch live, especially if a show offers a strong social media experience with an active twitter sphere conversation surrounding it as we become increasingly accustomed to watching more On Demand. Are there shows you especially feel are worth watching live? I'd like to hear all of you on this.
STUEVERWell, I love to watch Scandal on Twitter. I mean, you know, I -- it's easy to have it on and actually keep my eyes on twitter and do two or three other things. Just I get a kick out of it.
NNAMDII have Facebook...
DEGGANSWell, I would say, to answer your previous caller's question...
DEGGANS...I think one of the things that the networks are struggling with is this idea that especially in comedy, shows like "30 Rock" and "Parks and Rec" and "Community" that are considered high quality have a very specific audience. And that audience is too specific to make the shows big hits on network television. And they are trying to figure out a way to do shows that are high quality, but that will draw the kind of broad audiences that they need to survive on network television.
DEGGANSSo, you know, your caller may be experiencing the shows in a different way, but if all the people who are experiencing the shows the way he's experiencing them, that show doesn't necessarily get credit for that viewership when the network is trying to figure out if the show is a success or not.
DEGGANSIf you wait until "30 Rock" finishes its run and you watch it all on Netflix, well, by then, you know, all the ads have been sold. You know, they've already decided whether or not the show is a success or not. And it doesn't really "count" quote unquote towards whether or not the network thinks that show is a blockbuster hit. And that's a problem for shows like "Community" and "Parks and Rec". They pick up a lot of viewership from video on demand or from Netflix or from iTunes or from delayed viewing, people recording it on their DVRs and watching it later.
PASKINI think also we're sort of in this age right now where the shows that get the most attention are dramas. Like those have become the water cooler shows. And I think part of the reason that's the case is comedies especially, you do not have to watch them when they're aired, right. They're self contained. I mean, I think comedies have become more complex and more serialized in certain ways, or some of them have. But that's the whole thrill of a comedy, you know. You can watch it whenever you want. You don't have to have that much context. It's the people that you know and they're going to be charming and funny.
PASKINAnd so then there are shows -- I mean, I think that one of the reasons Shonda Rhimes has been so successful is because she's making shows that people are appointment viewing. Like, if you miss "Scandal," you're going to be spoiled on "Scandal" the next day. And I think that, you know, "Game of Thrones" or "True Detective," there's these shows that people feel like they have to watch them or they're going to have to hide from the internet. And that is increasingly rare and I think for all the reasons that Eric just said, increasingly important to networks because they really still need eyeballs.
PASKINBut I think that that exact dilemma is sort of more of a dilemma for comedies at this moment than it is for dramas, and sort of why they're day-to-day -- you know, they're regular weekly audiences. The numbers can be so low even though the show is very good.
DEGGANSIt is interesting. I talked to Bob Greenblatt, the chairman of entertainment for NBC. And, you know, he talked about "Hannibal," their show that's based on Hannibal Lecter, the character from the "Silence of the Lambs" films. And they feel like because that show is show dark and so intense that even though they think it's a good show, they can't get a lot of people to watch it.
DEGGANSBecause once it gets to a certain level of darkness, the viewers start to fall off and you're left with the amount of people who watch an episode of "Game of Thrones" or "Mad Men," which is much less than the amount of people who watch "Scandal." So they are really trying to figure out how to make quality dramas and comedies that will draw, you know, network-size audiences.
PASKINBut -- and obviously their sense of what a network-size audience has changed dramatically. I mean, there are smaller audiences for television shows now than there were. And I think there is awareness of the different ways to make money off a show, whether it's, you know, not DVD necessarily because that's a little outmoded, but, you know, in Netflix deals and iTunes sales and all of those things. And if there is an impassioned audience for a show that can reliably be expected to buy afterwards, like a show like "Community," for example, in certain ways that reliable revenue stream, even if it's so much smaller than what they sued to make off a show, I mean, they'll take it at this point.
NNAMDIBack to the issue of diversity with Sheila in Fort Washington, Md. Sheila, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHEILAOkay. Thank you. Hello, Kojo and panelists. I was indicating that when I first started watching "Grey's Anatomy" that it seemed as though the characters of the black females were dismissed from being a love interest. And I was wondering whether or not that was something that Ms. Rhimes was, I don't know, playing out in her home life. I just didn't know why that seemed to always be the case in those black women characters.
NNAMDIAnd then you watch "Scandal" and what happens?
SHEILAAnd then, I watch "Scandal" and here we have Olivia Pope, who falls into another stereotype, which has been historically pronounced in literature...
NNAMDIOversexed black woman?
SHEILA...over sexualized black woman. And I'm saying -- and I know she's a powerful bad sister, but then she's still falling under that category And I was just wondering what your panelists and you thought about those two issues. Thank you for taking my call.
NNAMDIYou're looking for the in between, Willa?
PASKINYeah, well, I think, you know, it's interesting because this is a hard thing on any TV show where it's like where -- and certainly when you're talking about African American women where every single character sort of has to stand in for so many other people. You know, becomes the example of like the entire experience whereas, like, you know, no white women, because there are so many of them on television, or white men is probably even a better example, you know, they can be individuals.
PASKINSo the thing about "Grey's Anatomy" is the character -- sort of the black woman that was on the beginning of that show is a character called Dr. Bailey who was the very commanding, imperious, scary, excellent doctor who was the students' teacher. And she still is but, you know, much more so in the beginning of the show. She was referred to them as the Nazi. And her sex life was at the beginning of "Grey's" not -- she didn't have one. She didn't have sort of -- that was not her kind of character. We didn't know about her personal life.
PASKINBut that to me seemed really specific to her because she was always so annoyed by all of the bed-hopping of her students which she found totally unprofessional. And as "Grey's" has sort of continued, Bailey is now, you know, she got divorced, she had a second husband with whom she has a very complicated relationship that can be very -- you know, that is sexually, you know, explicit as well. And so she's become sort of -- they've given her a sex life.
PASKINBut, you know, there's also now more black women on "Grey's." There's another intern, you know. So it's -- and then similarly Olivia Pope, you know, it is true that she has this sort of torrid relationship that I think is really a lot of people's entry point into "Scandal." But, you know, there's a lot of people that are having a lot of sex on "Scandal."
PASKINI mean, Quinn and Huck, like, they just bit someone's face off and sort of sort of -- you know, so it's like I'm not sure that Olivia's the only one.
NNAMDIHank Stuever, you often revisit shows to talk about how they have evolved, "Grey's Anatomy" being an example, I guess.
NNAMDII don't know You often...
STUEVERNo. You know, I'm like...
NNAMDI...but I wanted to talk diverse to you...
STUEVER...Alessandra Stanley. I'm not going to wade into a detailed discussion of "Grey's Anatomy" because I am not an expert in it. But we're glad to have one here.
NNAMDILet's talk diversity because when we talk diversity we often focus on the optics. And while there may be a change onscreen, it has been noted that there has not been a similar change in writer's rooms and in executive suites in television. How does that contribute to this issue that we're discussing and do you see progress coming there too?
STUEVERI think TV critics, you know, they go to this summer press tour every year. And, you know, that's really a parade of light producers, light writers. We didn't see a lot of difference there but -- which is one reason why Shonda Rhimes and her crew tend to stand out when they do come out with a new show and do sit before us and take questions.
STUEVERBut this season, this television season -- and I'd be interested to hear Eric talk about this because I know he's looked at this a lot more deeply than I have -- but this television season to me just seemed a little bit more effortlessly integrated, diverse, different.
NNAMDIMartha Anderson has a big problem with that, but we'll talk about it later.
STUEVERYou know, it...
STUEVERToo effortless maybe but at least I just -- I felt like I was seeing new stories and it's not just about racial diversity. I was seeing different demographics, different socioeconomic demographics, even different cities. I mean, you know, I didn't see a lot of Chicago this time. You know, like I just felt like I was seeing not -- you can't call it a concentrated effort on the part of TV networks because, you know, they're not in communication with one another and they all just sort of work around one another often out of fear and worry about their own ratings.
PASKINBut I think you can kind of see it that way because TV networks, like movie studios, they copy what is successful.
PASKINIt's like "Bridesmaid" is a hit and they wanted a -- they're like, oh, there's an audience for women. And I think what we're seeing this season is basically "Scandal" is a hit. And look, it's partly a hit because it energized this underserved audience. And maybe actually there's money here so let's try to make it whatever shows.
STUEVERThat could be. That could be. Yeah, that...
DEGGANSYeah, well, I meant...
NNAMDII meant Anthony Anderson, by the way, but go ahead, Eric.
DEGGANSYeah, I definitely think "Scandal" was a sparkplug for this. And I also think "Sleepy Hollow" -- a lot of people don't remember, but "Sleepy Hollow" was a pretty good hit for Fox. And it is very diverse although in a very unacknowledged and kind of subtle way. And Fox has made a point of being very upfront about demanding diversity in the cast of these new shows. And that spread throughout Hollywood as well.
DEGGANSWhen we went to press tour in July, we saw "Blackish" that has black executive producers. We saw "Cristela" where the stars and executive producer, she's Latina. We saw Shonda Rhimes who now is controlling three shows on one night of television. It may be incremental, but this is a level of diversity behind the camera. I mean, ABC announced a deal with John Ridley, the African American screenwriter of "12 Years a Slave" and his show "American Crime" is coming in midseason.
DEGGANSSo it may not be an overwhelming number of people of color, but compared to what we've seen in the last ten years it is an overwhelming number of people of color.
DEGGANSSo they are making these changes and they're making these changes because they sense that their traditional audience is shrinking every year. But you look at every, you know, analysis and it shows that people of color watch TV more. Black people watch TV more. Hispanics watch TV more. Women watch TV more. So why are you loading up your shows with white male characters? You know, that's -- it's just kind of elementary. And the one thing that network TV is scared of is the competitor jumping on a trend before they get to it.
DEGGANSSo I think diversity has finally come around. And what is heartening to me about this year is that I feel like two of the best comedies of the fall are also the most diverse, "Blackish" and "Jane the Virgin." So it's not just a fad. They're creating good shows that have diversity that may actually last beyond the shakeout period that we talked about earlier.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you think diversity behind the scenes of a show is as or more important than the onscreen cast? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or more generally, what shows new or returning will you be tuning into to watch? You can also send us email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet at kojoshow. Willa, I interrupted you.
PASKINNo. I was going to say, just the quality of the shows -- you mentioned "Blackish" and "Jane the Virgin" -- is really important because if what is happening on TV this year is a little bit of a fad, if the networks are making whatever shows because they think that that's where the audience is, you really -- you know, sometimes fads don't pan out and you want the shows to be good enough that the audience shows up and it stops looking like a fad, you know.
PASKINIt's like if you just make a bunch of junky lost rip-offs they're all going to fail. And then it looks like lost is a fluke. But if you really make a bunch of very good shows that are sort of, you know, in the spirit in some way of "Scandal" and they can attract an audience, then that's the kind of thing that perpetuates itself. And that's really what we want to see more of instead of just this being this one off year and next year, you know, we're back to not going...
NNAMDIEach of you has favorably reviewed "Blackish" starring co-creator, producer Anthony Anderson which premiered last night. Start with you Hank, why do you think it's worth tuning into?
STUEVERWell, to get to what we were just talking about also, when I watched the pilots this summer I just -- I'm a little less cynical, I guess, about -- that the networks are putting them on because "Scandal's" a hit and, oh, okay, now it's diversity. It really didn't strike me as a concentrated effort and it didn't strike me that I was being beaten over the head with, here's our diverse show. I just started -- it just started to make sense to me. It started to look more like an ideal of what I would like to see from television as a viewer and a critic. "Blackish," I think, you know, I thought a lot of the jokes in it were a little bit remedial on race.
STUEVERBut in my review, I thought, you know, as we've seen a lot over the last several months, especially over the summer, there's some remedial conversations going on about race in America anyway. And maybe this show, even the definition of "ish," you know, I just -- I think that viewers would respond to that right now.
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Eric?
DEGGANSWell, you know -- and, you know, Hank knows that I love him and he's a good friend. But I will say that having a year where ABC has a new comedy about a black family, a Latino family and an Asian family -- that does not happen by accident. As somebody who has been pushing these people to try and do these kind of shows for years...
STUEVERWell, I didn't say it happened by accident. I just thought the content of the shows didn't reflect that intent.
PASKINWell, they're good. They're better than they should be.
STUEVERYeah, the shows are better than they should be. That's what I was trying to say.
DEGGANSYeah. The shows are great. But the reason why they're happening now...
STUEVERI wasn't saying that this all happened by accident. I was saying that the content of the show feels more natural than a blunt, aggressive approach to race.
DEGGANSYeah, it didn't feel like a hackneyed -- or we got to get something with an Asian in it kind of reaction. But they have very specifically turned towards race and cultural diversity this year. And I'm not sure...
DEGGANS...they're being -- they're fully sort of talking about how specifically and intentionally they are turning towards this. But they clearly are, because it's been so hard to get the networks to even acknowledge that something like this was necessary, even two or three years ago. And there's some networks, CBS, that still haven't gotten the message.
DEGGANSRight? So -- but I do think we're at an interesting point where people are getting the message that it's not about social justice and it's not about being fair and kumbaya and all this stuff that cynical TV executives sneer at. What it's about is creating new characters that people haven't seen before. It's about reaching out to audiences who have previously been underserved and maybe would watch traditional TV a little more if you created TV that spoke to them. And it's about creating shows that can win awards and that can get good ratings and that can make money. And there are some of us out there who've been saying that if you diversify your shows, you will get all of this great stuff.
DEGGANSAnd you don't even have to worry about being socially responsible. You can do well by doing good. And we're on the verge of seeing, you know, a couple of networks, at least, try to see if that can be a reality. And if it works out for them, you know, everyone will jump in.
NNAMDIWilla, "Blackish" has invariably been compared to "The Cosby Show," which premiered, oh, 30 years ago this week. How does this show both hue to that spirit and deviate from it?
PASKINWell, you know, I compared it to "The Cosby Show" in my review, which I felt a little hesitant about, because it does just feel like, oh it's a black family sitcom. Like, here I am talking about "The Cosby Show." I wish there was more things to talk about. But I think that the thing about "Blackish" that I found really so impressive is it sort of is this extremely warm, inviting show, much like, you know, "Modern Family" kind of. It's like a group of people you want to hang out with. They're recognizable. The wife, who's played by Tracee Ellis Ross, is just like -- I loved her, you know? But it, unlike "The Cosby Show," it just really talks about race. It is not like -- it's not, not talking about it. It's not implicit. It is the subject of the show.
PASKINAnd that is obviously really different than "The Cosby Show," in which Bill Cosby really made the decision -- obviously the show was suffused with a huge amount of implicit racial pride. But it was not discussed explicitly. So that -- and I think that just sort of talks a lot about where we are right now, which is that we're really, you know, in the culture, which is it would be ridiculous, kind of, to make the show and never talk about it.
NNAMDINevertheless, Hank, there's been talk about Bill Cosby returning to network television. Is that going to happen?
STUEVERWell, over the summer, we were told that they -- NBC is working on something for next summer -- a comedy that has him in a grandfather role of a brood. I haven't heard anything since then. Eric, have you heard? Are we really to expect that next summer?
DEGGANSI haven't heard anything beyond what everyone else has heard.
STUEVERIt's in development.
DEGGANSYeah. I do get the sense, like, you know, there was a major biography of Bill Cosby that was published last week.
DEGGANSAnd the 30th anniversary of "The Cosby Show" was actually Saturday, last Saturday. So when that -- when stories about that came out, there's a whole side to Bill Cosby that doesn't fit his patriarchal image where he's accused of sexual assaults and...
NNAMDINot included in the book, though.
DEGGANSNot included in the book. But the book does talk about him cheating on his wife several times, too. And so I do think that they may be underestimating the amount of public relations work they're going to have to do. If they bring Bill Cosby back and put him in front of journalists -- if he comes to press tour, I am going to ask him about it. I'm sure somebody's going to ask about that.
STUEVEREric will. I guarantee you, Eric will.
PASKINAlso, I mean, Bill Cosby had a show after "The Cosby Show," called "Cosby."
STUEVERThat's right. Everybody forgets.
NNAMDII remember that show. He was...
PASKINThat was not a hit, you know. And he played grouchier.
NNAMDIThey were empty-nesters. They were living in Queens.
PASKINYeah. So it's not like, you know, any TV show is a risk. And it's not always going to work. And, you know, he may want to do that right now. But again, it's a lot (unintelligible)
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation. If you've called, stay on the line, we'll try to get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. Are there shows you make it a point to watch live, so that you can follow the social media conversation? If you DVR most of your favorite shows, how do you avoid spoilers? 800-433-8850. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you can also see previews of some of the fall shows. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the fall TV season with Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic. Willa Paskin is a TV critic at Slate. And Hank Stuever is The Washington Post TV critic. We invited your calls, still are, at 800-433-8850. Here's Rebecca in Silver Spring, Md. Rebecca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAHi, Kojo and panel. Thank you for taking my call. My question/comment involves your previous question about hiring and having writers of underrepresented populations work for television. I, myself, finished my Master's of Fine Arts in playwriting. And I happen to be a queer woman. So often, in workshops, when people would write queer characters into their play, I felt they were often stereotypes or that they were telling a story that I had personally ready, seen or lived in at times that I wasn't as interested.
REBECCAMy question is, if everybody's looking for that next niche market, if they're looking for ways to make money, why would you not try to hire more people whose voices aren't often heard? Because those are going to be the stories that haven't really been out there many times to begin with.
PASKINWell, I mean, this reminded me...
NNAMDIBe a suit. Be a TV suit for a minute here.
PASKINWell, I think, you know, this reminded me of a show we should have been talking about already, which is "Orange is the New Black," which is another show with a hugely diverse, hugely female cast, with lots of queer characters as well. You know, which has also been a huge hit for Netflix and kind one of the buzziest non-network shows around lately. So, I mean, I think that if you are a network suit, as we've said, all of these -- this -- all of these different kind of experiences seem like much more fertile territory for you to set a hit show in. And not doing that is more and more sort of stubbornness and ignorance.
NNAMDIBut given where the writers aren't...
DEGGANSI can answer that question, by the way, if you want.
DEGGANSSo if you're a network suit, and you work with Fox or NBC or CBS, if you hire somebody who looks like everybody else who came out of Harvard and has a bunch of buddies that came out of Harvard, and that person hires all those people to be their writer. And they create a show that's just like every other show that's on network television. And it fails. Then you tried and it didn't work out.
DEGGANSIf you hire a person of color who's maybe never done a TV show before and they go out and hire a consolation of writers, some of whom have not done that much in television because they didn't get a chance to do that experience. And then they do a show with a multicultural cast led by a black woman and that show fails. You're the idiot who did something unusual and it blew up in your face.
DEGGANSI think this is corporate thinking. You know, sometimes it's safer for people to do what has happened before, even when what's happened before has failed. And there are relatively few true visionaries in any industry, but especially in Hollywood. So, you know, it's taken some people to have the vision to seek out new talent and give them the right opportunities and develop their talent. You know, Shonda Rhimes came along and "Gray's Anatomy" was like "Orange is the New Black." The star -- the ostensible star of the show was a white woman. But she was surrounded by a multicultural cast that I thought, in the first season at least, was much more interesting than she was.
DEGGANSAnd as Shonda kind of built her portfolio in network TV, she got the power to present the kind of characters at the center of shows that she wanted to do. And she's talked about how "Scandal" is sort of the show where she gets to do what she wants to do. And so we need more visionaries who are willing to look at writers like our caller and figure out a way to develop and groom her so that she can be ready to create her own show that's different than everything we've seen on television before.
NNAMDIBy the way, next...
PASKINOh, but Shonda...
NNAMDIBy the way...
PASKINSo, it's not...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Willa.
PASKINNo, the Shonda example is interesting there too because she started making a show that was, in a lot of ways, a regular network show. I mean, it was very diverse. But it starred a white woman. And there's this idea that we can only hire people of color to make shows about their own experience. And that's obviously not the case. And often, it would be great if people of color were in writers rooms and making shows, because they would have the experience to be, you know, really knowledgeable and adept at making TV. So they could then make the thing that they really want to make and have the experience and the pull to make that happen.
PASKINAnd, you know, we don't -- it should be more diverse and not just because -- on shows that are about, you know, where they're making shows that look -- about people that look exactly like them.
NNAMDINext Wednesday, October 1, in the noon hour of the show, we'll be talking with graphic novelist, Gene Luen Yang, about the fears that writers and artists have to overcome when writing characters outside of their own experience. So it will be focused more on that issue. So be sure to tune in for that. Hank, your colleague, Cecilia Kang, had a piece today about CBS's reliance on an old stalwart with a new branch -- "NCIS," which starts another spinoff this fall, this time in New Orleans. To what do you attribute this brands success? And does this new edition, in your view, capture the flavor of New Orleans?
STUEVERI think, after "Treme," I don't know that -- I mean, it's hard to attempt to capture the flavor of New Orleans any more than that show did.
STUEVERBut for the story you're referencing is -- by Cecilia Kang, is about the, you know, how CBS has made a lot of money of off "NCIS," because it just hits that middle-of-the-road target audience that still watches a television that's plugged into the wall and likes doing it that way. And I'll tell you, the thing about "NCIS" for critics is, what is there to say?
STUEVERThere's really, you know -- it's just, it's bulletproof, you know? Although, I thought the New Orleans that they're presenting -- well, you know, it's no different than the Los Angeles they're presenting on the other franchise.
STUEVERYou know, it's just got some tobacco sauce on it. You know, it's, really, listen...
DEGGANSLike, one black, regular, right? One black regular character.
STUEVERYeah. Well, the typical procedural approach to diversity is a lieutenant or a partner or a coroner.
NNAMDIIn this case, CCH Pounder, my homegirl.
STUEVERYeah. Mm-hmm. A good actress.
STUEVERAnd, you know, and she talked a little bit this summer about bringing a little added dimension to that role. But, boy, it's confining.
NNAMDIYeah. We got an email from Barbara. "What are your guests' thoughts on 'Gotham,' with Jada Pinkett?" Eric or Willa.
DEGGANSI loved "Gotham." I thought it was the best drama probably of the fall. And Jada Pinkett, I mean, her struggle is that she's playing -- okay, so this is a show that takes off from -- it's another iteration of the Batman story. Bruce Wayne is a kid and we see his parents get killed. And we see a lot of these super-villains in very young ages. So the Penguin before he becomes Penguin. The Riddler before he becomes Riddler. Catwoman before she becomes Catwoman. And, you know, Jim Gordon, he's still a detective in the Gotham Police Department. And we'll presumably see his rise to become police commissioner. And Jada Pinkett Smith plays a crime boss called Fish Mooney, who is a new character. She's not from the books.
DEGGANSAnd her struggle, I think, is going to be playing a character that the fans don't know and may be a little harsher about. I've already seen some criticism about her character because, you know, she's not a part of the regular Batman story. And so people don't quite know what to make of her. But she's having fun in the role. I mean she's eating all kind of scenery, you know?
DEGGANSShe's just really chewing the scenery in that one.
STUEVERShe's good in it. I mean, Eric, is that just part of Fox's, you know, diversity requirement?
DEGGANSI would not be surprised.
DEGGANSI really would not be surprised.
STUEVERI gave the show really high marks, too. I thought it was a really well-made pilot.
NNAMDIWilla, last year, "Breaking Bad" came to a lauded close. And while they may not match that finale, a few last seasons are beginning from "Parenthood" to "Sons of Anarchy." Any that you're especially sorry to see go or are eager to see how they end?
PASKINYou know, it's interesting. I think, as a TV critic, I am a little more jaded and cut-throat about shows having life spans than people who just watch them because they love them and would like them to go on forever. Because there is a point where a show should end and it has diminishing returns. I really believe that. And so I love "Parenthood," but I think it has passed that point. And I'm excited to watch the last season and happy that it will be over. You know? Like I -- and I think also the thing that's interesting about TV is, you know, if there's enough of a show for you to know you love it, there's enough of it. Even if you wish there were 30 more, you know?
PASKINIt's like 19 episodes of "My So-Called Life," or "Freaks and Geeks" has been enough to, you know, convert many, many fans. And shows don't need to go on necessarily for 10 years for us to be satisfied -- or for me to be satisfied.
NNAMDIHank, anything you are happy to see go?
STUEVERWell, I do think -- I think "Sons of Anarchy" needs to be brought in for another, I mean, it's just...
DEGGANSNeeds to be put down?
STUEVERI just feel sort of brutalized by it at this point. So, yeah. Yeah, I think -- and I think everyone on it is behaving as if they're all going to die.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Hank Stuever is The Washington Post TV critic. Hank, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIEric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. Eric, thank you.
NNAMDIWilla Paskin is a TV critic at Slate. Willa, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show." It's produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and Andrew Katz-Moses. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer, Timothy Olmstead. Jonathan Osmundsen has been on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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