by Raizel Liebler
Is having diversity on television dramas really that difficult? Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal seamlessly integrate characters played by many actors of color. There are many crime/cop/lawyer shows that have *one* main cast person of color (CBS: The Good Wife, The Mentalist, Person of Interest, Elementary, NCIS, NCIS: LA, Criminal Minds, Blue Bloods; ABC: Castle, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Revenge; NBC: Law & Order: SVU; FOX: Sleepy Hollow). So having one person serve as “diversity” has been mainstreamed, but having two or more people of color in a scene is still difficult to find.
Outside of Shonda Rhimes’ shows, the crime-inclusive dramas Beauty & the Beast (CW), Bones (FOX), Chicago Fire (ABC), and Hawaii Five-O (CBS), seem to be the only U.S. dramas on American network television with two consistent main characters of color.* With the inclusion of Bronze Tiger as an antagonist for at least part of the next season, CW’s Arrow may set some type of record as the first non-medical, non-cop American drama with three Black men on a show at the same time – who are not related to each other.
To demonstrate the scope of the lack of diversity on US television, though on cable, USA’s Suits may be the only drama presently airing for U.S. audiences that has two African-American women** as main characters – two of six main characters! Rookie Blue, the Canadian show sometimes airing on ABC, is the only recent network show with two women of African descent in the main cast. And even Shonda Rhimes has only recently ever added a second African-American woman to the sprawling cast of one of her shows – Grey’s Anatomy in the ninth season.
Hawaii Five-O and Death in Paradise are two of the most opposite – yet similar – shows on television recently. Hawaii Five-O is an American show set in Hawaii that is a remake of an earlier show, with quick cuts and action sequences, with multiple plot themes; Death in Paradise is a British/French show set on a fictional Caribbean island with the slow moving plotting of Agatha Christie.
But they are both detective mystery shows set in exotic, far from the mainland islands in Empire-building societies – and have a very large number of characters played by actors of color. On both shows, the non-local is played by a white guy, but the other police officers, locals, and criminals are mostly people of color (more so on DIP, H5O also has two main white dudes).
We are still at a point where Asian-American actors like Brenda Song still need to play to stereotype to get roles (despite an excellent run on Scandal as David Rosen’s assistant). However, Hawaii Five-O may be the first American television drama to have three people of Asian descent in the same scene – all doing their jobs rather than as a family – and it does this over and over. Without comment. This type of workplace scene has only recently moved beyond shows created by Shonda Rhimes, and is still way too uncommon.
Death in Paradise has the uptight Brit come to a small Caribbean island to solve crimes, but his whiteness is not central to the plot. Instead, this is more of a fish-out–of-water tale with a caustic, smart outsider, similar to Doc Martin. It would be great to have a show like this in the future where (a) actor(s) of color also play(s) the outsider – say Adrian Lester and Lolita Chakrabarti, a real life couple?
In real life, sometimes everyone in the room in a professional context – in court, in the operating room, in other work contexts, is a person of color. Reflecting this diversity on television only takes casting more actors of color. Not possible for American television? Just look at examples to the contrary: Shonda Rhimes as a showrunner, Orange is The New Black as a limited run show, and Hawaii Five-O, Suits, and Rookie Blue.
*To make sure I cover everything: Parenthood, the family-based drama does have two characters of color, but one of them is not a starring character. And while CBS’ NCIS has two actors of color, one of them is portraying a (most likely) not a character of color. I’m not sure how to categorize the fantastical shows, but both of CW’s vampire shows, The Vampire Diaries & The Originals have one main character portrayed by actors of color. And stepping even further down the road, The Wicked Witch on ABC’s Once Upon A Time is played by an actor of color. And Criminal Minds and L&O:SVU each added a Latino actor to this coming season, though I’m not sure if they are main cast.
**Yes, Gina Torres self-identifies as an African-American Latina.