The Sun's David Zurawik talks about the new NBC sitcom, "Truth Be Told", on WYPR FM's "Take on Television."
In just 12 months, a seeming novelty has become the norm.
Last year, new-season buzz centered on the number of network series that featured ethnically and racially diverse casts: "Black-ish," "Fresh Off the Boat," "Jane The Virgin," "How to Get Away with Murder" and "Empire."
They have all survived. They have been joined by more new series featuring diverse casts. And networks are moving beyond casting: On new series such as "Truth Be Told" and "Rosewood," characters from very different backgrounds are deeply engaged in conversations, conflicts and new understandings of identity as they try to negotiate space and navigate their way in multicultural TV settings.
What's happening in prime time looks like a microcosm of what's taking place in the larger society as the nation works its way through the tension, conflicts, joy and possibilities of a changing America undergoing massive demographic and cultural shifts.
"For a long time, we were supposed to say, 'I don't see race.' Or, 'I don't see sexual orientation,'" said DJ Nash, creator and executive producer of "Truth Be Told," the new NBC sitcom debuting Friday, which typifies TV's commitment to capturing America's changing identity this season.
"But you know what?" he continued. "I do see it. I see it everywhere. I celebrate it. And that's what this show is about. We're all different. Some of the differences are cultural. Some of them are racial. And some are socio-economic. But this show, as opposed to hiding and running from that, embraces it."
The series, which is described by Nash as following "two diverse couples who humorously yet unapologetically talk about all the gray areas that hit their lives," opens on the two male leads, one black and the other white, debating whether the accent of the woman handling their carryout order at a Chinese restaurant is authentic.
Mitch (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) says he doesn't think he's "allowed" to talk about such things, but his friend, Russell (Tone Bell), who is questioning the woman's accent, believes he "can" because he's a person of color.
Later in the episode, the two have a similar discussion about whether Mitch can voice the n-word in singing along to Jay Z's "Empire State of Mind." (ABC's "Black-ish," one of the most socially conscious of last year's new series, opened its second season last month with an entire episode focused on the n-word.)
Nash and his producing partner, Will Packer, say they are only warming up on issues of diversity. One upcoming episode of "Truth Be Told" includes a story line with Russell and Mitch mistaken for a couple by a gay car salesman and not instantly correcting him in hopes that Mitch will get a discount.
Another future story line explores the reactions of Angie, Russell's African-American wife, when she finds out that he had previously been in a relationship with a white woman. Angie, a pediatrician who is identified in the series as being from Baltimore, is played by Bresha Webb, who was born here and graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts in 2002.
"I was like, 'Wow,' when they actually told me about the premise," Webb said. "It's very specific within the black community and with black women, and no one [on network TV] has ever discussed it outside of the black community."
As Packer sees it from within the belly of the Hollywood beast, "There has been a push for quite a while to have diverse folks on-air in front of the camera, especially on network television where we have not had a lot."
But there has been far less of a commitment to the kinds of frank and multi-dimensional conversations about race that we are starting to see.
"I really embrace the opportunity to have a discussion around race, because race is a part of everything we do," he added. "And to try to deny that is to be irresponsible. The danger is when we're not discussing it. … If we talk about the differences the way this show does with a light approach to some provocative issues, I think it can spark a dialogue that's important."
Packer is one of the busiest producers in Hollywood these days. He built his reputation producing big box-office films featuring African-American characters and themes, such as "Ride Along" and last summer's "Straight Outta Compton." He now also has two TV series and mini-series in production beyond "Truth Be Told."
He and Eva Longoria are co-producing "Bonita and Mechelle," a comedy about two women, one Latina and the other black, for NBC. Meanwhile, he's a doing a TV version of "Uncle Buck" with Michael Epps in the role played by John Candy in the 1989 feature film. Packer is also one of the executive producers on a remake of "Roots" starring Laurence Fishburne for the A&E networks in 2016.
NBC is playing catch-up on diversity with series like "Truth Be Told."
Thanks to showrunner Shonda Rhimes, ABC was exploring diversity earlier and better than any other network the last five years with series like "Scandal." Last year, it added "Fresh Off the Boat," "Black-ish" and "How to Get Away with Murder."
Fox also came on strong last year with the season's hit in "Empire," a soapy and sexy series about the music industry starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.
The network added another series grounded in diversity of character and setting this fall with "Rosewood," a one-hour drama starring Morris Chestnut as Miami pathologist Dr. Beaumont Rosewood, Jr. and featuring Jaina Lee Ortiz as Miami police detective Annalise Villa, the object of his desire. Think of it as a multicultural "Moonlighting" with smart things to say about black masculinity, Latina identity and death underneath the police procedural that structures each episode.
"The cultural differences between Rosewood and Villa matter as much as the procedural," Todd Harthan, executive producer, said. "Diversity and multiculturalism are the new normal. It would have been disappointing if it had turned out to be just a passing TV trend last year. … No question there is an appetite at the networks for this type of programming."
The question with commercial television is always whether it's about business or culture. Sometimes it is both.
"I think the success of some shows will yield the potential for other shows. That's definitely part of the reason for what you are seeing this fall," Nash said.
"But I do think there's a social awareness and a way that we embrace each other that is now part of our society — and it wasn't like this before," he added. "With the passing of gay marriage and the arrival of two-term black president, there's a certain social progression that we've gone through as a country that I think sets the table perfectly for the stories we're telling here."
The relationship between social reality and what's seen on TV is a complicated one. Nash says he's writing about his own life in "Truth Be Told," but TV has a long history of writers and producers creating series out of their own experiences only to see their work tamed or rejected by network gatekeepers.
The networks and cable channels have their arms wide open to series featuring discussions about cultural differences this year, and they are willing to entertain a much more fluid notion of identity as something that is socially constructed by intervals from within and not a fixed by birth, biology or family.
Though Mitch's wife, Tracy (Vanessa Lachey), is Asian-American, she's referred to as "ethnically ambiguous" because of the way she can change her look by simply altering her hair or makeup, according to Nash. The showrunner said he was struck by the term when he heard it from focus group members talking about Tracy after seeing episodes of the show.
"At the end of the day, diversity is big business, and that's the economic reality of going against what has been the norm in network television," Packer said.
"Because there is a such an increased competition for eyeballs, for consumer attentions, you have to play to what America really looks like," he continued. "And no longer does America just look like five straight, white friends hanging out in an apartment in New York or L.A. That's not the reality of many Americans' day-to-day experience any more, especially when you think of the way we all now interact via social media with people outside our demographics of culture, race or geography."
Network TV might be a little late in getting to where we are as a nation in terms of diversity. And it might be doing so for all the wrong reasons. But at least it's starting to show up in a serious way.
Last fall, shows featuring diverse casts and themes became a trend. This year, with more arriving and a solid number of returning sophomore entries, they are becoming the norm in prime-time network programs. In a reported essay, we look at this shift in light of changing demographics and the society trying to comes to terms with a new kind of multiculturalism.