"Three Phrases Television Should Stop Using: Lessons From ‘Dads,’ ‘Ironside’ and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine’"
I’ve been to the Television Critics Association press tour four times now, and one of the more interesting things I’ve observed after four stints sitting in a ballroom full of television executives, show creators, and actors, is that there are some very specific ways they often answer questions about diversity in casting, and about humor that’s intended to be edgy, but that reads to critics as simply a default to racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes. This isn’t to say that everyone who takes the TCA stage to talk about their new projects defaults to these three phrases–there are always creators and executives who are rewardingly thoughtful around these issues. But if the entertainment industry wants to get off the defensive and get more credit for good faith engagement around some of these conversations, these are three phrases executives, creators, and actors should ban from their vocabularies when they’re asked about race, sexuality, gender, disability, or any number of other tricky subjects.
1. “The best actor for the role.” This phrase gets trotted out constantly to explain why a cast is all white, why a person without a disability is playing a wheelchair user, or why a cis-gendered person is playing a transgender character. It’s meant to indicate that the folks with the final say in casting are focused on merit and don’t harbor any sort of animus. But it’s a meaningless phrase. If you didn’t cast the best actor for a role, then you’re not doing your job (though, of course, when people have only seen an episode or two of your television show, it may not be clear that you got that call right). And the real question that someone is raising when they ask about your casting is why you didn’t decide your show would be more interesting with the dynamics created by a diverse cast, or why you didn’t want the life experience of someone who, say, uses a wheelchair informing the show.
The best way to answer those questions is to be transparent, and to talk about your actual process and decision-making. Teri Weinberg, an executive producer on NBC’s remake of the classic detective show Ironside, explained that they cast Blair Underwood to play a wheelchair-using NYPD detective because the show “was always meant to see Ironside both in present day and go back into his life prior to the shooting. So in this particular situation we needed an actor who was able to take on both of those roles. So, it was it was really about the best actor for the role, but it was one that required an actor to not only be on his feet in his previous life, but also confined to the chair.” And Ken Sanzel, who’s also an executive producer onIronside, explained that “there’s about 10 percent of the episode that exists in flashback, and usually flashbacks are informing Ironside’s emotional state, something that’s dialing in between what happened in the past and what’s happening in the present,” and that it was too difficult to recreate those sequences with special-effects. You may or may not be pleased with that answer, but it’s an actual explanation of how Ironside reached the result it did, and the technical factors that played a role in that decision.
Similarly, Michael Schur, the creator of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, explained that in his casting process for the exceptionally diverse sitcom, “Our characters’ names were very generic names in the script at first. They were like Meghan and Amy and whoever, and we auditioned people of, I would say I don’t know eight different ethnicities for a lot of the characters and just cast who we wanted, and this is the cast we wanted.” That kind of detail isn’t just responsive to questioning: it’s a useful model to have out there for other shows that are considering how they’ll handle their casting processes.
2. “Equal opportunity offenders.” For some reason, this phrase is offered up as a defense against the idea that a particular character, or a show in general, harbors animus against a particular class of people. Apparently, it’s better to have your main characters be hateful to absolutely everyone, than to have them be just racist, sexist, or homophobic. This is an exceptionally strange logic, unless you think American television viewing audiences have been so effectively and thoroughly negged that what we want from our entertainment is to be beaten up by it.
The latest person to trot out this rationale was Fox president Kevin Reilly, who in defense of his truly wretched new sitcom from Seth MacFarlane, the live-action Dads. Asking critics for patience, Reilly insisted that “we’ve seen it before in shows like Family Guy, where everybody said, ‘You know what, we’re equal opportunity, we’re all going to have our moment to get skewered, and if it’s funny, we’re in, we’re okay with it.’ We’ve got to earn that.” A great way to earn that patience is to think about where your characters’ animuses come from, and how to frame them so the joke is on the person who harbors bias, not the target of that bias. Another is to recognize that there’s a different between an anti-hero and an ass.
3. “Political correctness.” Martin Mull, who’s one of the stars of Dads insisted that “if I thought something was apropos and meaningful, just because it was not necessarily politically correct or something you would talk about in the middle of the room, I would not stay away from it.”
And Seth Green dug in further, telling us that “historically, television has been a provocative medium. It’s a medium we look at to observe ourselves. And all of the best and successful shows that really prompted any kind of change in cultural thinking were provocative and offensive, shows that I grew up loving, like All in the Family or The Jeffersons, that explored issues of race relations or opposition to war or things that weren’t considered all that politically correct, this is the opportunity for characters to have that discussion in a way that most normal people can’t…I think that we’ve become a really careful culture and as soon as people started suing each other over hurt feelings, people started getting more and more afraid to speak their mind or even point at something. And I’ve gotten into the weirdest conversations with people about what they think is racist, and it always speaks to their own personal, cultural sensitivity and them not wanting to be considered personally offensive.”
This might be a defense you could mount if you had actual hard truths to speak that were being suppressed by law. Joking that Asian men have small penises, or talking about a game of “Punch The Puerto Rican,” or putting Brenda Song in anime cosplay to close a business deal does not qualify. And if you claim to be holding a soulful conversation about the painful realities of American life about a show where even the president of your network acknowledges that the jokes aren’t calibrated properly yet, you best be prepared for some dead-eyed stares, followed by intense and scornful laughter. Talk about your joke construction. Explain the ideas you’re trying to get at. If you’re attempting to do something differently, talk about the mechanics of that. Don’t act martyred because people didn’t think you were funny. Deal with what people are actually saying about your work, not the argument you wish you had available to you to get huffy about.