A Deluxe Apartment in the Sky

A few network stars can't hide the fact that the black family sitcom is in deep decline.

Though 1999 was only a teenage lifetime ago, ‘90s nostalgia has jumped the line. Looking back is fun, and now adults in their 20s and 30s can play too. But when we do glance in the rearview at a Buzzfeed listicle, few things have changed as much as the portrayal of black families on America’s sitcoms.

In 1995, more than 10 comedy series featured an all or predominantly black cast. Over 15 by 1997, most boasting a diverse viewership. Martin, Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, Sister, Sister: If ongoing syndication is any indication, the nearly two decades since have hardly dulled our love for a time in which we could watch not one, not two, not three, but multiple black characters on the small screen at the same time, facing scenarios every bit as complex as their white counterparts.

The end of some long-running white sitcoms like Seinfeld made way for new post-Friends millennium favorites such as How I Met Your Mother, The Office, The Big Bang Theory, and Girls. These shows have either all-white casts like their predecessors, or a similar composition plus a few people of color in minor roles (who inevitably serve to be the butt of racial jokes). Meanwhile, the black ensemble casts have all but disappeared from view, and everyone seems to be pretty fine with that. When we do see leading characters of color, their isolation suggests easy interchangeability, even as we are instructed to cheer on their existence by virtue of visibility alone.

Take ABC’s Scandal, a show that, despite urging from producer/creator Shonda Rhimes to draw conversation elsewhere, is praised as a marker of revolutionary representation and racial progress. But the fever surrounding Kerry Washington’s lead role as Olivia Pope is not entirely unique. Amber Riley in Glee, Gina Torres in Suits, Indian American actress Mindy Kaling in both The Mindy Project and The Office, and the technicolor cast from Orange Is the New Black have all prompted thinkpieces proclaiming that as far as mass media representation is concerned, we are headed to the promised land. And if I use my fingers and toes to tick off exactly how many shows have included a character of color with a speaking role in the past decade, I just might be tempted to believe it.

Black-ish, the latest of too few non-Tyler Perry sponsored (financially or ideologically) affairs, pledges to be both breath of fresh air and nostalgic return to the black familial unit of old. In the trailers, the show appears driven by patriarch Andre Johnson’s efforts instill blackness in his family, whose upper class suburban environment has, he explains in voiceover, caused them “drop a little of [their] culture.” His eldest son favors field hockey over basketball and has adapted his inherited name into the much more approachable “Andy.” This is a problem. Andre, Sr. gathers his nuclear unit to announce the need for the family “to be black—not black-ish.” He promises to throw Andre, Jr. a “bro-mitzvah” rather than yield to Hebrewization. It’s a spectacle perhaps intentionally reminiscent of the Old School, but the Afrocentric pitch is offset by cringeworthy lines like “all this coming from a mixed woman who isn’t even technically black.” The tipping point between mimicry and mockery is difficult to judge.

Black-ish brings “some much needed diversity” to the sitcom genre, we are told. That is to say, it’s already praiseworthy for the indisputable fact that it adds to the number of visible black faces on primetime television. Though not without detractors, the consensus seems to understand Black-ish as attempting something important. My love for the golden age of black sitcoms gives me hope. But what exactly is Black-ish trying to do?

Though not invented by that period per se, multiculturalism infiltrated American social policy in the 1980s, a time marked by political weariness and wariness. Exhausted by decades of political “doing” -- here, there, everywhere -- and the resultant legislative labor that followed, the nation had found a president in Reagan who told them their social consciousness needn't be any more complicated than “We the people.” He gave white Americans permission to stop worrying about dissatisfied “groups” like black Americans, and applaud a whitewashed national abstraction.

For those who retained commitment to fighting the good fight, multiculturalism appealed as a compromise or concession. They, too, were tired. For those on both sides tired of doing about the violence of white supremacy, multiculturalism rebranded the charged rhetoric of race under the name “culture” without any major changes to the ethnic paradigm. Black Americans would still be considered Negroes, not diasporically African Americans. Non-white cultural recognition was compartmentalized, and discrimination individualized. Multiculturalism became a politics, with hope from at least some that it could lead to something, while agitating nothing. Anti-racism, once fundamentally incompatible with fancy free market ideals, became a vessel for the good word of capitalism.

In season three of The Fresh Prince Bel-Air, Sherman Hemsley made several guest appearances as the churlish Judge Carl Robertson, a once-radical legal hero and professorial mentor to Uncle Phil, who has since succumbed to greedy, conservative — or as Phil says, “obsolete” — interests when it comes to wielding his judicial influence. Hemsley enters the scene hands outstretched to the thunderous applause of a studio audience. He folds neatly into the role of Robertson, a character tailored made for his Jeffersons past.

The show does not resist having a bit of fun this this. Confronted by Geoffrey, the Banks family’s English butler, Robertson cries, “Benson!”—Hemsley breaks character with a slight grin—“I didn’t know you were really a butler.” After dinner, Will asks Aunt Vivian, “How come he keep calling you Weezy?” followed by knowing laughter and applause.
Judge Robertson urges Uncle Phil to make a run for his position of superior court judge, a move he earlier refused out of respect for his mentor. Phil loses, but Robertson’s sudden death results in his judgeship through gubernatorial appointment.

The symbolism hails noisily. Robertson’s demise is a torch passed — one sitcom great to another — in acknowledgement, but not mourning (Hemsley would appear several seasons later along with Isabel Sanford in a full reprisal of George Jefferson). From a high-rise condo on the Upper East Side to a Bel-Air mansion, the black ensemble cast kept moving. It’s a cultural continuance, visible in a line of black faces, but not connected by that alone. From Jeffersons to Bankses, that the black sitcom remained, intact, undisturbed, and still funny was a serious achievement.

It’s an acknowledgement Hemsley made on a number of occasions throughout the ‘90s, with appearances on Hanging with Mr. Cooper, Family Matters, The Wayans Bros., The House, Martin, Sister, Sister, even a “Good Burger” skit with Kel Mitchell. After a recurring role on The Hughleys from 1999-2000, his credits dwindled with the number of black ensemble shows. Perhaps Hemsley was on hiatus, but perhaps there was nowhere else for George Jefferson to move, up, sideways or elsewhere.

Ejected from the center, actors of color dispersed across primetime television and settled as the beloved borderline tokenized characters in the new post-Seinfeld favorites: Timmy in Rules of Engagement; Tracy in 30 Rock; Gloria and Manny in Modern Family; Raj in Big Bang Theory; Turk and Carla in Scrubs; Barb in The New Adventures of Old Christine; Fez in That 70’s Show; Catalina and Darnell in My Name Is Earl; along with the rainbow speckled casts of The Office, Community, and Parks and Recreation.

These singular stand-ins representative of a given race or ethnic background are not a new phenomenon by any means. Louise, George, and Lionel Jefferson began as fringe characters in the very white All in the Family, after all. But I’m hard pressed to envision the CW launching a full-scale series on, say, Bonnie and her grandmother on The Vampire Diaries — despite the network having one time derived much of its revenue from broadcasting the antics and adventures of black friends and families.

The decline of black ensemble casts happened on children’s networks as well. In the early 2000s, Disney Channel regularly aired The Proud Family and That’s So Raven along with reruns of Sister, Sister and Smart Guy, exposing young viewers of all races to four distinct black families.
The likelihood that the CW or Fox or CBS would consider such a project worthwhile remains slim — not now that networks can parlay sparse representation into profitable liberal cachet.

The characters have always been there — Isaac in The Love Boat, for example — but what’s changed is how we talk about them, how we ascribe seriousness. Now we accept any and all black and brown faces as part and parcel of a progressive project whereby creators, directors, and entire networks become credited with furthering and, in some cases, creating, important political moments.

And then there is Olivia Pope. The standalone, strident Black female protagonist belongs in a category apart, though her rapidly tropifying existence in dramatic television is no less indicative of a shift towards an all-for-one, identity-based, mass-media-as-doing-politics politics. Impossibly industrious, she’s willing to sacrifice emotional, mental, and physical well-being for her work. Her friends are but an arsenal of transient allies; she contends with white women and black men, though the catalytic racial and gender microaggressions are seldom up for discussion. If multiculturalism is realized in Olivia Pope, than winning means shedding community and support networks built upon lived experience as a racialized, gendered person. As a black woman in the senior ranks of a white Republican presidential administration, could Pope be more removed from a sense of community? And though this is a reality for many professional black workers, it’s not an aspirational one.

This fall Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope will be joined by Octavia Spencer’s Nurse Jackson on Fox’s Red Band Society, Viola Davis’s (who the New York Post describes as getting “the Kerry Washington treatment”) Professor Annalise Keating on ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder, another Shonda Rhimes production, and Alfre Woodard’s President Constance Payton in NBC’s State of Affairs. Seeing black women in lead roles is exciting to be sure, but the characters and their unaccompanied near-solo acts provide cover (and color) for what are essentially white networks. Black women, headlining, visible, is good news enough.

Meanwhile, of the black ensembles that do remain, mostly relegated to periphery networks like BET or OWN, most invite their own cultural irrelevance. Tyler Perry’s For Better Or Worse, aired first on TBS and then later, naturally, on OWN, might have been this decade’s Fresh Prince. Though more concerned with the tumultuous romantic relationships between its main characters than any single familial unit, it too illustrates the lives of the black nouveau riche. But, without a character like Will to serve as everyday interlocutor and audience surrogate, the lack of inward criticism on For Better Or Worse sends the show into a weird space of fantastical nowhere culture. Though constructed almost entirely of familiar racialized tropes, the characters themselves are just so over being Black. The constant reinvestment in Tyler Perry -- so prolific a director/producer in a parched industry that he alone accounted for the 4 percent increase in television episodes directed by a man of color between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 -- is a comical dramatization of the problems with multicultural tokenism.

If conversation counts as doing and visibility counts as politics, than anything that can be talked about thus constitutes a political statement. The disappearance of the black sitcom, then, looks much less mysterious. Why invest in complex cultural realism when the sight of a “colorful” cast will do just as well? Diversity sets the bar so low that we not only settle for Mercedes and Queenie, we pat Ryan Murphy on the back for doing something important.

Which returns us to Black-ish, a show that even weeks away from its premiere, critics already lauded for its ability to “go there” (Where? There) in the age of Obama. It’s unclear whether we are to take Andre’s mission to cure his family’s blackishness as serious commentary or farce. One clip shows Andre, dressed in generic “African” garb, telling his son to “stand right there and experience your roots” before blowing sand in his face as part of some also-generic African ritual. His father, played by Laurence Fishburne (also executive producer), watches on and mutters that the pair would be “better off watching Roots.”

The show’s premise, articulated by Andre himself, is that blackness is incompatible with affluence and an intact family, only becoming real through caricature. This extrication of black sociality from blackness is validated by multiculturalism and made possible by neoliberalism. If black people on tv are a sign of progress when they’re surrounded by white faces, where are we going? It’s no integrated colorblind paradise; just ask the black people who walk into otherwise monochrome workplaces every day. The pseudo-politics of multiculturalism are lucrative as ever on television, while black community and success come to seem mutually exclusive. You can’t be “winning,” can’t be a protagonist while black.

Only black-ish.