Since my readers introduced me to Issa Rae’s web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, I’ve wished someone would give Rae, whose biting, original, low-budget show has earned her a well-deserved following, a deal and the resources to take her show national. Now, Shonda Rhimes, one of the few women and few African-Americans who can basically get a network to greenlight anything she wants, has found a way to do precisely that. Through her Shondaland production company, Rhimes has helped Rae sell a new series, I Hate La Dudes, about the sole woman on an internet radio talk show, to ABC.
This is good, and illuminating, news for two reasons. First, it’s a sign that production companies and networks are finally starting to look to web-based content the way they should, as a source of genuinely new voices and of fresh storylines. In an ideal world, the internet and the distribution platforms native to it, Hulu in particular, should function as a kind of minor leagues for television, allowing artists to test ideas, improve their tool kits as low budgets require many of them to write, direct, edit and score as well as act, and build followings. Not all projects will succeed, but web shows, which are free from the pressures of network scheduling, can take time to develop audiences by word of mouth. If a show becomes a hit online without the benefit of a major publicity campaign, as Awkward Black Girl did, it’s fantastic proof of concept. That Rhimes and ABC recognized Rae’s talent and her audience is a testament to them, as well as to Rae’s work and vision.
The question will be how much leeway Rae has at ABC. Because it’s a network, it’s hard to imagine she’ll have as much freedom when it comes to content or to ratings as Louis C.K. has at FX or Lena Dunham has had at HBO. ABC picked up the show because the network thinks it can make money from Rae, not merely to pick up awards nominations or critical praise, and no matter how original Rae is, she’ll be getting network notes. But in a sense, there’s something invigorating about that proposition: ABC must think it’s possible to do well with a show from the perspective of a nerdy African-American woman whose prior selling point has been the social awkwardness of the character she portrayed, not precisely a demographic that gets heavy representation on network television.
And it’s also exciting to see Rhimes use her capital in Hollywood this way. Tyler Perry, the other person of color who can get almost any television or film project he wants into development, has never seemed particularly interested in using his shingle to help other writers and directors get projects moving (though he produced Lee Daniels’ Precious). And today he signed an exclusive development deal with the Oprah Winfrey Network, locking in profits but limiting his influence. There’s nothing wrong with Perry making that money. But it’s more exciting to see Rhimes single-handedly use her influence to make television a place that’s not just more diverse but more interesting, even in a way that goes beyond her own shows. I’ll be crossing my fingers for Rae to succeed not just because I can’t wait to watch whatever she creates, but because if she does well, that can only rebound to Shondaland’s credit, and if this is any indication, to our benefit as well.