It's fall preview season, 2010. I'm African-American and I am 46 going on 47 and Julie Andrews is certainly NOT singing a twee song to me about passing from one age to the next.
Within my lifetime I have seen TV shows that have used blackface for "comedic" effect ("Soap" "Designing Women", although the character was castigated for using it and some unnamed and long-forgotten unsuccessful pilot that had someone blacking up before they did some horrible faux-Polynesian dance) show after show after show where there was only one Black character, blessedly few that starred Blacks, almost none of them being dramas and a blessed few of them being particularly good.
On the other side of things, we are now in an environment that a show that features two attractive people of color that are happily married and high-level spies is, in and of itself, no big deal and that's a good thing.
Is it enough?
J.J. Abrams' new show, "Undercovers" features Boris Kodjoe and Gugu(lethu) Mbatha-Raw as two ex-spies, running a successful restaurant and are pulled back into the game by the somewhat too cranky Gerald McRaney (because federal law requires McRaney to be in a TV show once every five or so years). The show breaks no ground, which is no well...crime, heh-heh, but not every show needs to break ground and push the envelope to be good. "Modern Family" for example, is not a pioneering form of new television, however, it is enormously funny and deserving of an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy. You want an African-American spy? Bill Cosby starred in "I Spy" with Robert Culp, a year later, Godfrey Cambridge guest-starred on the "Dick Van Dyke Show" in the "Man From My Uncle" episode. You want 'em married? Well, Tim and Daphne Maxwell-Reid tried the married crime-fighting act in the regrettable "Snoops". So, why don't I just shut the heck up? Isn't it enough that, rare as it is that there have been enough people of color doing the spying? Can't I just watch Lance Reddick in "Fringe" and be a happy chappy?
Well, I am no longer worried that if "Undercovers" bombs I will never see the like of it again. I don't cringe at their sassy janitor (there is no sassy janitor). They are happy in their marriage and they express that, they are successful in business, they OWN their own business, they don't speak in some kind of urban patois that is someone's dreadful assumption of "how all of them talk". If it is canceled this year, I doubt that the NAACP will march or start a write-in campaign.
To which I say, hooray!
Let's take race out of it for a bit.
So, what do we have? I have two leads that work quite well together, the lead's sister needs more to do, but I have a show with a bit of a crutch. I'd like to say that Mark Harmon is not only a good actor, he is a durable one. He was quite good in "St. Elsewhere" and he has found a nice home on "NCIS". He is durable, because he has survived "Charlie Grace", which may have turned into a better show, but had a lousy pilot episode. "Grace", among other things had characters speaking in unison and "Undercovers" did this, several times. Ewwww. Also, the initial show's plot was predictable as a James Bond movie and their assistant-as-worshipful lapdog MUST be toned down.
I was and am still thrilled that Barack Obama was elected President. I also feel that his election was good, but far too late in a country like the United States, which touts itself as being dynamic and progressive. Other countries have elected women to run the country, while Hillary Clinton had people yelling, "Iron my shirt!" at her on the campaign trail.
So is, "Undercovers", enough?
Let's put race back in the picture.
Were this 1976, I would call this show a success. There would have been nothing like it on the air at the time and it may have been attacked by many as unrealistic and I mean by Whites and Blacks alike. So, huzzah for progress that this scenario is not unrealistic. For that Unreal and Offensive Booby Prize, take a look at "Outlaw" over on Mippyville TV.
I admire J.J. Abrams. I like "Fringe" and unlike some purists, I liked the latest "Star Trek" movie and I say this as someone who watched the original series quite a bit. However, while we are in front of the camera, how many are behind it? I am not saying that the writing or directing will automatically improve solely by adding Black people, but I still kvell knowing that we can be trusted AND respected on both sides of the camera. Is there a Black writer or director that has the sway of a J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon, per se?
Folks, the time has come that we can no longer accept or expect that the critical praise that has the hint of "well, considering that it's _______ people (fill in your ethnicity of choice) it's pretty good". The fact that it is an Abrams show is a very good thing, because he has a name that raises the right eyebrows, but this show needs to be better. If it wants to be frothy, fine. Not everything needs to be "The Sopranos", but if I can figure out what is going to happen plot-wise and feel almost no suspense, there is trouble afoot.
The only groundbreaking aspect of this show is more a personal one. Years ago, I might have been compelled to defend this show, or at least keep my trap shut, because of the various and sundry things that I like about the show. The slightly better news is that we are here. The TV landscape is slooooowly reflecting the populace but we are nicely entrenched and I'd like to see more of that. Now, I can say that "Undercovers" needs improvement and sleep without the guilt of having uttered the sentence, "Yes, Clifton Davis lives with his Mother, but at least it's HIS barber shop".
Now, having said my piece about that, the ads for "Outsourced" make me cringe, there are 0 shows that feature an Indian family in a drama, Latinos have surpassed African-Americans in US population, yet I see ONE show that stars one and that's "Outlaw", drat it. Asian-Americans are hovering around the periphery, so, yeah, I still think things are better, but we're still mired in 21st century mores with 20th century attitudes toward race.
It's not enough.