A Race-Based Look at the Fall TV Lineup

I can’t watch TV without noticing race. I know when the first black extra gets a speaking role on a certain show. I’m aware of whether a white character is dating an Asian, an Asian character is dating a black person, an Indian is dating a Russian… well, you get the picture. So when I checked out some of the new shows in this season’s lineup, I definitely had my subconscious antennae up and wondered if they would satisfy my mixed race reality. I was pleasantly surprised, for the most part.

Timeless

timeless-02-3
Photo courtesy of post-gazette.com

I’ve never been that interested in time travel shows, or at least those that go back in time instead of forward. Let’s be honest, if you’re a person of color in the United States, it’s best to stay in the present. Even if I get into a classic movie like Mansfield Park, I’m suddenly separated from the protagonist at the first mention of slaves.

The creators of Timeless either naturally wanted to appeal to my demographic, or they did so in order to boost ratings. Whatever their motives, it seems to have worked. Rufus Carlin, played by Malcolm Barrett, is a genius coder who flies the time machine, as he and his companions try to thwart a possible villain at crucial moments in history. Carlin gets to tell off racists of past centuries while, of course, hoping not to get shot dead in the process. Since he’s a central character and not another Rue, I’m guessing he gets to live.

Notorious

PIPER PERABO, DANIEL SUNJATA
Photo courtesy of thetvaddict.com

There’s nothing extra special about Notorious race wise, but it does co-star one of my celebrity crushes, mixed race actor Daniel Sunjata. He plays opposite Piper Perabo’s Julia George, and the two have a professional yet flirty relationship as a news producer and a criminal defense attorney, respectively. While the race representation in this show is fairly standard, I’m enjoying seeing a mixed race lead.

One thing that does leave me wanting, though, is the portrayal of Sunjata’s brother Bradley Gregorian, played by J. August Richards. It’s not apparent what Richard’s role is yet, given he only gets about five lines an episode, if that, and mostly to give Sunjata’s character Jake Gregorian an emotional compass. It’s also slightly annoying that Richards and Sunjata look nothing alike, and not just color wise. It’s as if the casting director thought, “Here’s another black actor. He’ll do for the brother,” without considering that not all black people look alike.

The Good Place

The Good Place - Season 1
Photo courtesy of indiewire.com

I couldn’t get past the first episode of The Good Place, and even that was a bit excruciating. It’s not so much the race representation in this show that leaves me wanting; rather, the storyline just seems a bit (very) bland. However, it does irk me that the central conflict seems a cheap knockoff of Selfie, which was tragically cut short after one season. Both shows center around a white female protagonist who tries to be good through the influence of a male protagonist of color.

In Selfie, Karen Gillan and John Cho’s characters had sexual tension that put the storyline into the well-known “will they or won’t they” category, which worked for this couple. However, in The Good Place (at least through the first episode), Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop has no redeeming qualities and no interest in her “assigned soulmate” Chidi Anagonye, played by William Jackson Harper. Instead his whole purpose is to teach Eleanor how to be good in the afterlife. Jackson, from Texas, also loses his “Nigerian/Senagalese accent” before the first episode is over, and no one seems to mind.

This Is Us

NBCUniversal Events - Season 2016
Photo courtesy of tvgoodness.com

By far my favorite new show of the season, This Is Us is a sentimental drama about a nontraditional family. The narrative takes place in two different timelines–the present day and the 1970s, and it centers around two white twins and an adopted black baby who was born on the same day and raised with them. The narrative doesn’t gloss over the racial implications of an ethnically blended family, which includes K. Sterling Brown as the adopted son. Nor does it shy away from displaying race-based tension within the family structure itself.

Brown’s character Randall was raised lovingly by his white family, but still desperately seeks to know his troubled black father who’s dying of cancer. It’s a storyline all to familiar to me: it’s one I’ve lived. This Is Us‘s blending of Shonda Rhimes-like racial exploration with Parenthood-like sentimentality makes for the perfect fall favorite.

I look forward to the next episodes of each of these shows (well, except The Good Place), and I’m enjoying seeing plotlines that include relatable roles.

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