Diversity on TV: Let’s Talk about Troy, Abed, Tom & Kelly

When I used to watch Seinfeld and Friends on a weekly basis, I wasn’t looking to see myself represented. The main characters were the focus of the show and the reason I tuned in. The fact that they were white wasn’t an issue and the same goes even today as I plow through Breaking Bad on Netflix. I like humanity, vulnerability, different perspectives on universal experiences and emotions that are simply entertaining. So why does this seem like the most arduous uphill battle for TV creators to get through their heads when it comes to giving the same treatment to characters of color? For so long it seemed they could only give audiences one option: cardboard stock minority sidekick or background characters. But It’s just dawned on me that this past season’s Thursday lineup on NBC is a wonderful case study on what happens when writers go with door number 2: groundbreaking quotable meme-worthy new friends that happen to be people of color. Yes, Community, Parks and Recreation and The Office are three shows that are redefining the half-hour network comedy with a modern approach to presenting ensemble casts with balanced genders, ages, sexualities and economic backgrounds.

The million dollar question: How do we get more characters like these on TV screens across America?

  • Community’s Troy and Abed

    Sing it with me now: “Troy and Abed in the morning!!” They’re not cops, drug addicts or one-time guest stars; they’re simply human beings (played by comedian/musician Donald Glover and Danny Pudi).

  • Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford

After calling appetizers and desserts “apps and zerts” in one scene, Tom Haverford (played by comedian Aziz Ansari) earned his own meme on tomhaverfoods.com.

  • The Office’s Kelly Kapoor

Kelly Kapoor (played by writer/producer Mindy Kaling) in 2004 and 2010. See what happens when you have creative control?

Two very different tweets across my Twitter timeline got me thinking again about the age-old call for diversity on television. One is creating a stir throughout the web, while the other was a little more stealth. This week, super-showrunner Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal) tweeted that the new show about ballet dancers called Bunheads couldn’t have a least put 1 lead character of color of the show for her children to relate to. This of course dusted off the Girls debate again. But I really think it’s just too easy to toss Rhimes’ tweet alongside the “diversity debate” that Lena Dunham’s show sparked in the same way it would easy to get our feathers ruffled again about yet another show that has a white ensemble. Please, do I have to go on another 2 Broke Girls rant again?

The second tweet that caught my eye was from Adepero Oduye (lead actress in Dee Ree’s Pariah). She stated that she is both Black and is a fan of Mad Men. That resonates with a TV junkie like me because I believe that great dramas and comedies can captivate viewers of all demographics. They will transcend being a “black-white thing” and instead serve as a portal into an exciting world we can all escape to for a half-hour or two.

The point is that we don’t need another call to action. It’s not radical to portray different folks coexisting in the same scripted world when we do it in real life everyday. We all know what’s up.  Networks need to bring on writers of different backgrounds, especially young talent. At the same time, the young talent have got to put themselves in a position to be heard. Remember, we’re not entitled to success and it also looks like a lot of us aren’t entitled to be represented either. We should recognize the remodeling of the network comedy for the milestone that it is. I see Troy, Abed, Tom and Kelly as a super quartet of what diversity is in 2012. They’re distinct because they’re 3-dimensional and the hilarious result of a creative equilibrium both on and off-screen.

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