The new fall television season is in full swing and it's been making me think a lot recently about how many new shows this season are noticeably more diverse than previous seasons. The new spate of diversity is encouraging and it's been making me consider that oft-discussed question of whether people of colour are "obligated" to support television shows and movies with people of colour leads.
Obviously there's nothing technically compelling us to watch, but ratings show again and again that black people in particular, and black women specifically watch disproportionate amounts of television, so our viewing choices obviously matter. Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch made the case that black twitter is directly to be credited for Viola Davis' recent Emmy in and the larger general trend in diversity over the last couple seasons, specifically because we not only watch TV, but because we watch it live, and we talk about it on social media:
Among black female viewers between 35 and 40, Adalian wrote, the show [Empire] is literally the equivalent of a Super Bowl," with one episode "exceeding the rating of some NFL championship games this century."
"As a viewer of both, I can tell you that watching and laughing along with millions of strangers is kind of central to the experience of these shows. Black folks show up and watch like it's a responsibility."
So my dilemma is this: since I'm so fucking fly that my television viewing habits are winning Emmys and shit, do I have a responsibility to support shows with diverse casts in order to signal to the "powers that be" that diversity is something we want to continue? And does that mean slogging through bad shows just because I want to "show up for the cause?"
Case in point: Shondaland. I personally genuinely enjoy all of Aunty Shonda's shows (even Grey's Anatomy!) so watching is not a burden for me, but I'm also fully aware that Scandal went off the rails ages ago and How To Get Away With Murder never made a damn lick of sense, so I don't begrudge people who no longer watch. Conversely, I didn't watch American Crime because it struck me as preachy and mean, and I couldn't get past the pilot.
But Regina won her statue anyway.
For this season, my personal rule has been to at least watch the pilot of each new show starring a PoC lead or with a diverse cast. I'm allowed to drop whatever I don't like, but I have to give everything at least one chance. I struggle with the idea that really great diverse television shows will flounder due to a lack of viewership because their difference somehow makes them novel. (RIP Cristela...) But I also know that I watch upwards of 45 different shows a week depending on the season; I can't single-handedly save every show I love.
On the other hand, this policy has led me to a lot of great shows that I might not have given a chance otherwise. Shows like Fresh Off The Boat and Jane The Virgin might have completely escaped my notice had I not committed myself to giving television shows with a diverse cast a chance. And I'd never have become the great evangelical Jane The Virgin fan that I am today.
So far this season I've already dropped the Morris Chesnut led Rosewood and I'm waffling on whether to keep watching Ken Jeong's Dr. Ken. However, Quantico, the first network show starring a South East Asian lead, has completely drawn me in.
I genuinely believe that Scandal should be credited with the noticeable increase in the number of diverse shows that are available today. Suddenly everyone was trying to get a piece of the ratings pie that Shonda was baking, eating and selling all by herself. I mean, do you think it's a coincidence that Empire and Black-ish are on at the same time? Without Scandal's impact we probably wouldn't have Jane The Virgin, Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat, Minority Report, Sleepy Hollow, American Crime, How To Get Away With Murder, Quantico, Devious Maids or Being Mary Jane. We showed up and showed them that we wanted to see ourselves.
So how should we approach this sudden dearth of options? How do we find the balance between supporting diverse casts without filling up on shows we hate just because the lead character is black?