I’ve long been on the record about Fox’s horrendously unfunny new sitcom Dads, which arrives from the Seth MacFarlane factory to your airwaves at 8PM tonight. But as much as I’m disgusted by the show’s attempts to pass off ancient stereotypes, from the purported cheapness of Jews to the theoretically small size of Asian men’s sexual organs, as orthodoxy-challenging humor, as I watched my way through this fall’s pilot, I realized I resent Dads for a an entirely different reason. The discussion of why Dads is terrible, and what it means that Fox is in thrall to a creator whose work makes the network look retrograde and unable to spot quality, while absolutely necessary, is taking oxygen away from another important conversation.
The existence of Dads may be depressing. But a significant number of new shows this fall treat their characters as if they’re evolved enough to discuss race rather than defaulting to colorblindness as the safest position, and to discuss race in a way that’s forthright, sometimes blunt, and often very funny. If not for Dads, this might be an exceptionally strong fall for racial humor on television.
In Sleepy Hollow, which premiered last night, one of the ways the amusingly strange show about demon-hunting in contemporary upstate New York established the dynamic between a time-traveling Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and an easily-exasperated modern-day cop, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), was to have them talk about race and slavery. Ichabod, getting his bearings after waking up in the twenty-first century (he’d fallen asleep in the 1770s, after cutting the head off a Redcoat not quite of this world) and landing in a jail cell, wants to know if Abbie’s been emancipated when he meets her and finds out she holds a military rank. When he finds out she’s free, Ichabod tries to position himself as the good white guy, telling Abbie “If you’re insinuating I endorse slavery, I’m offended…I’ll have you know I was a proponent of the Abolitionist Act before the New York Assembly.” And the strength of the exchange is that Sleepy Hollow and Abbie don’t let Ichabod get away with it, where a lesser show might congratulate itself for offering up a time-traveler with such progressive racial views. “Congratulations,” Abbie tells him. “Slavery has been abolished 150 years. It’s a whole new day in America.” The clear subtext, even as Ichabod declares himself “pleased to hear it!”: an entirely-justified “what have you done for me lately?”
Similarly, Enlisted, the military comedy starring Geoff Stults as a super-soldier tasked back to a rear operating base where he has to search for military families’ lost dogs and deal with his own brothers, gives us white and black characters who are capable of having conversations with each other about race that aren’t simply about demonstrating the downness of white people. When Pete (Stults) reports to his new assignment, he sits down for a conversation with his commander Donald Cody (Keith David), who also played a surrogate father to Pete and his brothers after their father was killed in action. During the conversation, Donald, frustrated with Pete, takes off his prosthetic foot and pounds it on the table. “You get it’s weird it’s a white guy’s foot,” Pete tells him, amused by the absurdity of the image before him. “My size only comes in white,” Donald tells him. The joke’s great because it pivots from pointing something strange out to getting at the larger truth behind it.
There’s another moment when Enlisted offers up what seems to be a critique of it’s-funny-because-it’s-offensive humor. Pete, in a conversation with a Latina member of his detachment, makes a nacho joke that falls flat immediately. “I should not have said that,” he tells her. “Not because you’re Hispanic. I thought it was going to be funny.” It’s frankly refreshing to see an explicit, in-comedy acknowledgement that jokes about race need to work on two levels, to say something revealing and true, and also to be funny in order to be worthy of making it to the airwaves.
Conversations about race in the new fall television season don’t even just have to occur between between characters of different races. In the pilot for The Michael J. Fox Show, former newscaster Mike Henry’s gotten a little too involved in his family’s life at home after retiring because he believes his Parkinson’s Disease makes it impossible for him to work as an anchor. As he prepares for yet another family dinner, his sister Leigh (Katie Finneran) snaps at him, “Enough with the kale. We get it, you’re white.” In a later episode, Mike’s daughter, Eve (Juliette Goglia), who has a tendency to bungle into offensiveness by trying too hard to prove herself progressive, eyerolls at her parents, “What, we don’t own any Melissa Ethridge CDs? This is Obama’s America.”
And in The Goldbergs, ABC’s period comedy about an outsized Jewish family and the young son who’s videotaping them with the first video camera in the neighborhood, the middle son Barry protests when his father presents him with an REO Speedwagon casette for his sixteenth birthday. “This is top 40!” he hollers at his parents. “You don’t know me at all! I’m into rap, the poetry of the streets!” These jokes are far from the best of the season, on any subject, but they’re a welcome acknowledgement that white characters think about race and their positioning towards racial issues even when people of color aren’t present.
Jokes don’t even have to be explicit about race to be smart. Almost Human, a science fiction drama set in 2048, partners up a human cop (Karl Urban) with a robot (Michael Ealy). If they were both human, the jokes in the show might play off the actors’ different races. But instead, they’re subsumed into riffs on the different ways humans and robots approach policing. John (Urban) and Dorian (Ealy) bicker about whether the term “synthetic,” which John uses to describe robots, is offensive or not. And when Dorian points out that John doesn’t have to abuse a suspect to get information out of him, it’s a sly alignment of the arguments of communities of color with the logic of a robot who represents the best in modern policing.
Similarly, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which premiered on Fox on Tuesday, has more jokes about Jamón ibérico in the pilot than it does actual riffs on race. But the casting is set up to play with viewers’ expectations about race and characterization. In particular, former NFL player Terry Crews plays Terry Jeffords, a cop who’s gotten so anxious after the birth of his twin baby girls (Cagney and Lacey) that he’s been confined to the office after shooting up a mannequin, and spends a lot of time on therapy. Rather than being the kind of firey Latina (or temperamental Latino, one of whom shows up on NBC’s antiquated Welcome To The Family), Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) comes across more like the dour April from Parks and Recreation. Playing against type isn’t enough to create a coherent character, but if you’re trying to make a show that looks fresh, it’s a good gut check to perform on the people you’re trying to bring to life, and a good place to find humor by playing expectations instead of directly to them.
As promising as all these efforts are, there’s nothing to say that they couldn’t fall apart within the first weeks of the new television season. Television executives are terrified of falling off a ratings cliff, and I wouldn’t be shocked if any of the more modern audiences who should respond to Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Almost Human end up watching those shows on delay, while the retrograde audience Dads is meant to appeal to watch that show in its timeslot, making it look like a better bet than its smarter counterparts. The entertainment industry is a notoriously difficult place to achieve real social progress, because a single show’s cancellation can knock down the employment and portrayal of women, people of color, non-straight people, or people with disabilities in an instant. But to see so many shows be so sharp about race in a single season gives me hope that Fox — however the network may be promoting the show — knows the difference between a close-to-last-gasp show like Dads, and programming that’s actually smart about race.