Friday, March 13, 2015

Interracial as the new prime-time

A SURPRISING byproduct of the growing number of minority-themed TV shows — not so much inevitable as unavoidable — has been an increase in depiction of interracial relationships through the TV spectrum. Risk-averse TV suits and the advertisers to whom they pledge allegiance have finally come around to accepting the country’s romantic complexion.

Some people will say “what’s the big deal?” — a question more properly directed at the network executives for whom it was a big deal, for generations.

And it’s not just the number of them. As a departure from the usual casting reflexes, the more-than-occasional interracial pairing is refreshing in and of itself. But the real separation with the past, the big break with our social and cultural history, comes in who plays what role. In the TV relationships, if not the series itself, there’s often a black male lead.

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Interracial romantic relationships have long been the third rail of the American racial dialogue, the unfortunate carry-over from deep in our segregated national history. In the bitter years after the Civil War, southerners and their sympathizers painted black men as rapacious defilers of White Womanhood, one of the poisonous, resentful rationales for creation of the Ku Klux Klan.

D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was notorious for its depiction of black men in just this way; his corrosive characterizations in the film (100 years old this month) persist into the present day.

But in recent years, some series have stepped outside this comfort zone, with couplings that challenged the televisual status quo. It’s been de rigeur on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” in its 11th season; NBC’s “ER,” which ran for 15 seasons, did it as an earlier ensemble series. And it’s very much a part of the current prime-time diet.

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THERE’S A KIND of wave that hits our shores from time to time, makes its necessary and inescapable point, and then recedes. Well, that wave has returned anew. In the second season of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” lobbyist Remy Danton (played by African American actor Mahershala Ali) got engaged in a steamy relationship with Jackie Sharp, Assistant House Minority Whip (played by the white actress Molly Parker).

In the runaway Fox hit “Empire,” Andre Lyon, scion of the founder of the Empire Entertainment (played by black actor Brai Myers) is married to Rhonda (played by white actress Kaitlin Doubleday); the couple’s navigating family machinations and personal challenges as the series heats up every week.

In ABC’s new multi-storyline series “American Crime,” Elvis Nolasco portrays a meth addict implicated in a murder that resonates through a California community. Nolasco’s character, Carter Nix, is married to Aubry Taylor, played by Caitlin Gerard. Nolasco is black, Gerard is white.

All of these, of course, follow ABC’s hit show “Scandal,” our guiltless TV pleasure that’s explored the duotone romantic experience often, the relationship between Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) the stuff of morning-after watercooler talk. Interracial love has also been explored — with meaningful diversions from even our expectations about interracial love is — in Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black” and ABC’s “The Fosters.”

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True, four or five high-profile departures from TV’s monochromatic romantic norm don’t necessarily indicate a trend. But their presence on mainstream television today — broadcast, cable, streaming — comes to this cultural crescendo at the very time when our collective real-life patience vis-à-vis matters of race and ethnicity has, to go by several recent events, run out.

From the sad events in Ferguson, Mo., to the sadly astonishing incident playing out in Oklahoma over a racist song sung by members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, to the never-ending slights and indignities faced by President Obama, there’s still no limit to our pursuit of intolerance.

That’s the heartening connection between what we see in prime-time TV drama and a series of disquieting national events. Even amid the downbeat storylines of each of these programs, there’s a hopefulness that’s implicit in their casting structure, a positive narrative that plays out in the context of the modern romantic relationship. As a society, we’ve reached, or are certainly reaching fast, a comfort zone with mixed doubles, a rapprochement with the past.

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THERE IS OPPOSITION to interracial pairings on TV and in real life, for sure, and a lot of it. But a society is often led to evolution by its cultural devices. In our society, in our culture, that means television. The realities explored in each of these gritty, sometimes explosive series include that other reality: when personal and professional lives collide, they often do it regardless of race.

The television business wasn’t always so accommodating of realities it didn’t understand; the change reflected in these programs and others that dance on that third rail at this angry American time is a cause for nothing but optimism.

Some reactions to even writing about this not-exactly seismic shift in the teleculture will say it’s not necessary — for them, not talking, writing about or noticing the issue eliminates the issue. But that’s silly, certainly as far as modern American television goes. That’s like saying if you don’t talk about the weather, the weather will go away.

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That weather, and our emotional bandwidth as a nation according to the mirror of television, are changing at unprecedented speed. And that’s going to accelerate and keep going until these programs have company.

Until the day when it’s not minority-themed programming anymore. Until it’s just programming and people ask themselves why depicting interracial relationships on TV was ever such a big damn deal in the first place.

We may, may be closer to that day than we think.

Also published at BuzzFeed Community. Still from “American Crime”: ABC. Still from “House of Cards”: Netflix/Triggerstreet. Still from “Scandal”: ABC/Shondaland.

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