Black TV Dramas

I was thinking the other day, there are quite a few comedies on TV with a predominately black cast…But I had trouble coming up with any black dramas. The only one I thought of was SoulFood the TV series. Am I just forgetting some here?

“Brewster Place,” a series spun off of the TV miniseries “The Women of Brewster Place.”

If you count “dramedies” there’s “Frank’s Place” starring Tim Reid.

I don’t think there are even that many movie dramas with predominantly black casts.

Oh, there are TONS of movie dramas with predominately black casts… just start with the filmographies of directors/playwrights Oscar Michaeux, Melvin Van Peebles, Sidney Pointier, Spike Lee, Julie Dash, John Singleton, the Hudlin Brothers, the Hughes Brothers, Kasi Lemmons, Denzel Washington, pretty much anything executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby and the newest flava of the month, Tyler Perry (though I grant you Tyler’s works are deliberately humorous, they’re not exclusively comedies and have a lot of pathos, and hire dramatic actors like Cicely Tyson.)

Broadcast TV and cable television has never been kind to black majority dramatic ensembles, and barely tolerant of black actors in dramatic series where they’re meant to be star vehicles, a la Avery Brooks in A Man Called Hawk, Richard Roundtree in the TV series Shaft, or even the great James Earl Jones in Gabriel’s Fire. I was happy when M.A.N.T.I.S., starring Carl Lumbly, was picked up to be an ongoing TV series, but a bit disappointed when the show was retooled from its nearly all-black cast for the TV movie pilot, and ultimately eliminated without explanation both a black female love interest and M.A.N.T.I.S.'s two tech-savvy African sidekicks from the original movie.

White TV executives rarely support the shows enough to allow them to find their audience; white audiences don’t make up enough of the crossover audience; black and latino audiences don’t support them vocally or actively enough in large enough numbers faithfully enough. Most don’t even last a single season.

Some examples and exceptions:

Blair Underwood can’t lead a dramatic series to save his career. He’s been cast as the lead in the minority-majority medical ensemble City of Angels (with Gabriel Union, Hill Harper, Vivica A. Fox and Maya Rudolf as cast regulars) and paired with Heather Locklear as the leads on LAX, neither of which lasted a full season, IIRC.

Homicide: Life on The Streets at one time had the most non-stereotypical black male dramatic actors on TV in roles of authority, from Yaphet Kotto as the half-Italian Lt. Al “G” Giardello to the awesome Andre Braugher as Detective Frank Pembleton, to Clark Johnson as Det. Meldrick. Balancing the cast was a great mix of white, female and Latino detectives and a fairly memorable story arc with drug lord Luther Mahoney by the underrated Erik Todd Dellums.

Star Trek: DS9 is the best counterexample of what I’m talking about, with Avery “overemoting” Brooks as Commander (later, Captain) Benjamin Sisko (and whatsisname as son, Jake). Given the propensity for cancelling dramatic shows with black leads, and DS9’s initial low ratings, the show never would have succeeded without Paramount’s support for during its first two seasons and a successful revamp that added Michael Dorn, *Star Trek: The Next Generation’s * Lt. Worf as an intregal part of the show.

Its not that TV execs are unkind its that AUDIENCES are unkind.

It’s blame enough for both. TV execs can refuse to greenlight show concepts, have a bad habit of underpromoting shows and shuffle around shows on the schedules so that they never GET a consistent audience build-up, too. The TV audience doesn’t have the power to do that.

I already pointed out how black audiences tend not to consistently support black majority and black actor lead dramatic shows like The Cosby Mysteries. Then again, I wonder how many Nielsen families are black?

But that’s not specific to black themed shows so isn’t it a bit irrelevant to the discussion?

But it is specific to black themed shows. It’s just not particularly exclusive to them.

No, it’s not irrelevent to blame TV execs for not wanting to promote black dramas. They have historically and consistently failed to understand how to successfully promote a black themed dramatic show that appeals to not only a crossover, mostly middle-class white audience, but an urban poor-to-working class black one. It’s not for a lack of vehicles, either: no broadcast network acquired “Soul Food” when it became available for a TV series. Back in the day, when the excellent “Frank’s Place” was struggling to find an audience, CBS yanked it around its schedule and even diehard fans couldn’t find it.

What have the TV studios done to create or promote an ongoing black drama in the last 15 years? Forget “ongoing” – even a commitment to a high concept “sweeps” miniseries (like Roots, Shaka Zulu, the Women of Brewster Place or Queen) would be terrific. I think “Queen” was the last such miniseries promoted by the networks. Offhand, I can’t think of anything similar, which is pretty damned sad given that “Queen” came out 13 years ago. I think “Thief” would have done much better in the ratings if it were promoted as a six-part mini-series instead of a six-episode season.

Cable TV has made baby steps in ethnic diversity in its shows, but no true revolution will happen unless it hits the mainstream networks through easily accessible channels like BET (Ha! Kidding.) or broadcast TV, possibly even PBS. Also, somebody needs to put the NAACP in check about their offputting habit of publicly criticizing and condemning artistic works or “approving” scripts before the shows even debut.

I suspect an aversion to any sort of racial controversy, industry-wide bias and herd-like thinking on this point. Black dramatic shows have a poor track record of success and nobody wants to challenge it. I beleive industry insiders look at the fact that even Bill Cosby and Andre Braugher had difficulty carrying a dramatic show and assume it can’t happen, ever. Since no one thinks a black dramatic show will succeed, so no one even tries. If industry studios get pitched an idea for one, they turn it down or try to tweak it into something else they think might work – but even then, they often don’t stand behind their commitment. Even when they do, they’re afraid of being like NBC and Homicide-- sticking by a terrific, quality show that rarely gets stellar ratings.

If they had one breakthrough black dramatic show on broadcast TV to get high ratings, good reviews and a loyal audience, I can guarantee the following season EVERY TV network would scramble with cloned show ideas to cash in on the trend.

Finally, I should also place blame partly to the creative teams, too: writers, producers, directors and actors who approach shows with mostly the same cliched creaking dramatic plots, situations and promotional strategies they have for the last 20 years. Also, there’s always the same genres, too: gritty city urban dramas, detective and cop shows, (or if you’re thinking of “Oz”, prison shows). Nothing rural or rustic. No high adventure or drama. Nothing to do with fantasy, horror or sci-fi (Cosmic Slop barely counts.) But they can only do so much different working within the system. Something truly revolutionary would have to come at least partly from an independent creative team.

How is FX’s Thief doing, with Andre Braugher in the lead role? I admit I haven’t seen it, but he is awesome in anything he does.

Like I said: it had six episodes and then— ffftt! stopped. I get the sense it was not a ratings blockbuster but got the usual Braugheresue critical acclaim. FX has not announced whether or not there will be a second season, or another six-part story arc or anything. I suspect that’s a wrap.

Forgot to mention a few other black majority or black lead TV dramas.

Under One Roof, with James Earl Jones and Joe Morton, centered around a black family whose patriarch becomes a widower and takes in his son’s family.

Kevin Hill, with Taye Diggs. About a bachelor who becomes a father. (If you sneezed, you missed it.)

New York Undercover was an interesting multiracial crime drama with an unusual emphasis on black and latino actors, characters, directors and writers. Co-starring Michael LeLorenzo (not black!), Malik Yoba, Fatima Falone, with co-director Bill Duke and co-writer Reggie Blythewood. A Dick Wolf production.

I’ve been re-evaluating my stance on the Kelsey Grammar-produced “Girlfriends” for a few months now. I used to dismiss it as frivilous eye candy and watch it with the sound off in the background. But I’ve actually started watching it… and… while obstensively a comedy, it has morphed into a half-hour soap opera with a comedic sensibility that nonetheless tackles a lot of serious, contemporary issues much the way “All In The Family” did back in its heyday.

It had a lot of critical buzz before it aired and then just disappeared. I was disappointed in the pilot though Taye Diggs is the best looking man in the history of history.