This midseason, ABC is launching two new shows that feature more diverse casts than what’s typically seen on a broadcast network show. “American Crime” is a family drama focusing on how a horrific crime affects a white, a black and a Hispanic family, while “Fresh Off the Boat” is a comedy stemming from chef Eddie Huang’s humorous memoir about growing up as the son of Taiwanese immigrants in the 1990s.
The shows join an ABC lineup that already includes “Black-ish,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” all of which feature African-American actors in lead roles, and “Cristela,” created by and starring Mexican-American comic Cristela Alonzo. At the 2015 winter TV press tour, ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee tells reporters he feels it’s the network’s job to reflect the country’s diversity on screen.
“I think our mandate is to do shows that really resonate and that are contemporary; that’s what we perceive is part of our brand value. … I think it’s our job to reflect America,” he says, adding that ABC doesn’t pick up shows solely because they are racially diverse — they also have to be good.
“What we’ve found was going to storytellers that come from different groups … and going to pieces of casting in different areas will unleash a creativity that is really going to resonate,” says Lee. “I’m not going to pick up shows that will help me make a bullet point [about diversity]. … We didn’t pick up these shows because they were diverse, we picked them up because they were great.”
But that doesn’t mean putting quality, diverse shows on the air is without its own set of problems. “American Crime” creator John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” says tackling hot-button issues like crime and race in America can be tricky, especially in light of the Ferguson and Eric Garner cases in recent months.
“There was a difficulty in doing the show because in whatever you do, whether it’s drama or comedy or whatever, you want to be relevant, to a certain degree,” says Ridley. “And I think when we originally started working on the show, we were at a space where there were times I thought, ‘Maybe we’re not relevant anymore, maybe we’ve moved past certain things.’
“But then as the show was moving along, very sadly I realized we were actually pre-dating some things. … It’s never our desire to try to exploit any of these things, but at the same time, you want to build a space where people recognize that it is not purely empty entertainment in the sense that we’re not trying to acknowledge what is going on. … It’s something that resonates. …
“We want to be honorific to events, not worry about chasing events, but realize that people are going to draw some parallels. Here what we were trying to do is to tell authentic, specific stories that reflect our audience and I think we did that and that’s all we can speak to.”
During the panel for “Fresh Off the Boat,” Huang echoes Ridley’s sentiments that more than it being about making a show about minorities, it’s about making a show that tells a specific story.
“People want specific stories and that’s what you’re seeing on Amazon, Netflix, all over. People respond to specificity,” says Huang, adding that he is most excited about the cultural conversation “Fresh Off the Boat” might spark across the country.
“I believe the show is doing that, and I believe the show is very strategic and smart in how it’s opening things up. To deal with the word ‘chink’ in the pilot episode of a comedy on network television is borderline genius and insane at the same time.”
ABC certainly does seem to be putting forth one of the more diverse primetime lineups on television, which is why it seems odd that its “Bachelor” franchise has yet to put a person of color front and center. Lee does name-check Juan Pablo Galavis, the Venezuelan bachelor from a year ago, which is fairly surprising considering Galavis was pretty much the worst. But Lee also says it’s trickier for “The Bachelor” because of the way the lead is generally found each season.
“That’s a show that builds itself up through the farm team,” says Lee, in reference to the fact that for the past six years, each new “Bachelor” or “Bachelorette” has been someone from a previous cycle who did not win but was a fan favorite.
Does it all depend on a person of color making it far enough in the competition to become a fan favorite? If that’s the case, ABC should probably take care to cast more than one or two minority contestants each season — or take advantage of a black man being a huge fan favorite.
But as the dating franchise works on its diversity issue, at least the scripted shows are becoming more reflective of America.
“I do think it’s really bold of ABC to have this really diverse programming,” says “Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu. “I feel like there’s starting to be more opportunities for Asians to be first or second leads. … The landscape is changing, so networks do have to try different things.”
Her co-star Randall Park adds, “It’s really significant, what ABC has done in the last few years … they truly put on the most diverse primetime lineup probably ever. It’s an extraordinary thing.”
“We’re so proud of it,” concludes “Fresh Off the Boat” executive producer Nahnatchka Khan. “They’re just playing flawed, funny, relatable characters. We’re starting the conversation and hopefully people will pick it up.”