Monday, March 23, 2009

A View of an Unfortunate Situation

I don't watch a lot of TV.

Let me clarify. If I'm at home, the TV's on. I use my remote so much, I'm surprised it hasn't fused to my hand. But there are only a couple of shows I watch on regular basis. Right now, I'm hopelessly addicted to "Man vs. Food" and I have to confess I have a little crush on Adam Richman. I try not to miss an episode of "CBS Sunday Morning." I feel a bit smarter and sophisticated when I watch it. When my local PBS station decides to air it (damn they do a lot of pledge drives), I love "Antiques Roadshow." The stories and history behind the pieces fascinate me more than the worth of the items. Anything else on TV, I can take or leave. I flip back and forth from this show to that, never lingering for long on anything in particular. My defaults are Turner Classic Movies and Ovation, with a dash of TLC (love me some "What Not to Wear") and the Biography Channel - when they bother to show an interesting bio.

It's a pretty eclectic mix of shows. It's also a mix of shows with little diversity, and I find that fact frustrating. I'd love to add shows from BET to this mix, but BET lost it's relevance for me when they stopped showing classic black films and unceremoniously dumped Tavis Smiley, Ed Gordon and its nightly news years ago. My satellite TV service doesn't carry TVOne, but the few times I've caught shows on that channel it just seemed like a BET rehash. The website doesn't help to dispel that feeling. I was hoping to add David Alan Grier's "Chocolate News" or "D.L. Hughley Breaks the News" to my list of favorite shows, but they've been dropped by Comedy Central and CNN respectively. Before he died, I loved Bernie Mac's show - when I could find it. I have no idea if "Everybody Hates Chris" is still on the air.

If I want to support black TV on a regular basis, it seems my only option is Tyler Perry.
Oh, my.

Here's my problem with that. While I'm happy that Mr. Perry is a successful African American entertainment figure, I cringe every time his Madea character comes on the screen. (I'm so over the black man as Jemima 2.0, but looking at the success of Madea's movies it appears I'm in the - ahem - minority. Even Mr. Perry is reluctant to let her go because of her success.) While I'm happy he's been able to put African American actors and people of color from all aspects of the entertainment industry to work, I'm disappointed that this work comes in such broad, borderline offensive material. While I'm happy he's showing Hollywood that there is an African American audience desperate for entertainment that speaks to them, I'm frustrated that he seems to be the only voice Hollywood is willing to hear. Others feel the same way, according to recent articles in Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times about Mr. Perry's work and the lack of diversity on the air.

"People feel the images (in Tyler Perry's movies) are very stereotypical, and black people are frustrated because they feel we should be more evolved," Viola Davis, an Oscar nominated actress who recently worked with Mr. Perry said in the Entertainment Weekly article. "But there are very few black images in Hollywood, so black people are going to his movies. That's the dichotomy. Tyler Perry is making money." Larry Wilmore, a contributor to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and an executive producer for "The Bernie Mac Show" talked about his frustration with network TV, but said he didn't feel as though there was an orchestrated effort to keep people of color off the air.

"I don't think there is anything sinister going on. It's just an unfortunate situation," he said.

In the New York Times report, they noted Fox was "considering" a sitcom featuring Daryl "Chill" Mitchell and Michael Strahan. ABC is considering a pilot with Cedric the Entertainer. CBS is casting LL Cool J in a spinoff of "NCIS." That's three potential shows on three networks. Three. Gee, could they spare the room? It's an unfortunate situation.
The only greenlighted show it noted featuring people of color is on Fox: "The Cleveland Show," an animated spinoff of "Family Guy." It gets better. The character of Cleveland has been, and will continue to be, voiced by Mike Henry, who is white. The show will have a white, redneck neighbor voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson, who is African American. The only greenlighted new show is an animated Amos & Andy rehash. It's just an unfortunate situation.

More later, after I try to figure out why "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" isn't considered a setback and "Amos & Andy" is.

In the meantime, check out "Dhani Tackles the Globe" on the Travel Channel. Write to Comedy Central and CNN to ask them why they cancelled "Chocolate News" and "D.L. Hughley Breaks the News." Watch Tavis Smiley's show on PBS. Please watch "The #1 Ladies Detective Agency" when it premieres on HBO on March 29th. Go out and buy movies by Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Oscar Micheaux - any positive African American writer, director, producer, or filmmaker you can find. Go see "Medicine for Melancholy" when it comes to your town - or better yet, buy it when it comes out on DVD or to your cable station's Pay Per View channels. Write NPR and ask them why they cancelled "News and Notes" - one of the only African American based shows of color on public radio - and then ask what will be the replacement. Let's try to make an unfortunate situation fortunate.

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Anonymous BB said...

It could be because blacks are not making good shows. Good times with JJ, Sanford & Son, Martin Lawrence were all mad funny. I thought DL Hughleys thing on CNN was a bad joke. And not to seem unfair, most tv nowadays is crap. I just watch basketball, AC360, Larry King, Raymond and Just shoot me the latter if I happen to be home. I liked me some Forensic Files but now I got no Tru TV now :(

10:41 PM  
Blogger TEM said...

Here's the thing with Good Times and Sanford & Son - they weren't African-American creations. Martin was and was funny at the beginning, but it trailed off towards the end. Good Times was funny until the writers let J.J. dominate the show - and become a caricature. Hell, even Madea is funny, but it's still this side of offensive. I'd love to see us create and maintain shows that allow us to be black without being preachy or self aware (like "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World" became) - and without being typical racial stereotype. Shows like "Everybody Hates Chris," or "Girlfriends," or "Living Single," or "Frank's Place." I long for the day when a show like "CSI," or "Desperate Housewives," - popular shows that have a broad audience - can have a predominately African American cast and still pull ratings. I know it can happen. We just have to be ready to accept it. In the meantime, I've got my handful of shows, a lot of books, and my growing crush on Dhani Jones - even though I feel like a dirty old cougar when I watch him. Curse my forty-something years.

Thanks for reading and dropping the line. You come back now, ya hear?

10:48 AM  
Anonymous BB said...

But it is not an easy thing to have anything recognizable as just black without going to areas where people cringe to watch. You know the movie Hustle and Flow? it enjoyed mad ratings but if it was to be converted into a show, people would say "oh why do you have to portray blacks as a violent community dwelling in poverty and squalor with drugs and prostitution in their midst?" I'll tell you this, as long as blacks continue doing tv shows of a stage they want to be in life those shows will always fail.
You know, Flava Flav was so succesful in his show that they created Rock of Love, an immitation of the former. Friends the sitcom immitated Living Single.

3:41 PM  
Blogger TEM said...

Noting worthwhile is ever easy. Funny you should mention Hustle & Flow. I was so happy for that rap group when they won the Oscar because they were so happy, but at the same time I was so mortified by the song and the performance on the Oscar telecast. It's such a dichotomy. I don't mind aspirational entertainment. That's a fact of life and the basis of all entertainment. People either want to see what they think they want to be or pity those less fortunate than what they think they are. But we're so much more than pimp, prostitute, and thug. Barry Jenkins, the director of "Medicine For Melancholy" was on "The Treatment," Elvis Mitchell's radio show on KCRW. He said he was inspired to write his movie after seeing two African American bicyclists in his San Francisco neighborhood - he said he hadn't seen that on film before. Charles Burnette fought for years to get his movie "Killer of Sheep" released - and it was inspired by his daily life in L.A. He even used people in his neighborhood for authenticity. This movie is all about struggle, and it doesn't veer into stereotype at all. If anyone else wants to copy it, even better. I'd rather have "Friends" on TV right now than "Flava of Love," or "Rock of Love" for that matter. There's a place for Madea, or Hustle and Flow, or even (shudder) Flav. But there should be, and we should insist on, an equivalent place for other portrayals of African American life. Entertainment shouldn't be (for lack of a better phrase) so black and white. We have a range of life experiences that deserve to be shared across all media.

4:08 PM  

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