So for the past three weeks, I’ve been watching this PBS doc series AMERICA IN PRIMETIME, on the evolution and construction of major character types on primetime American television. The series episodes have been broken down by these types, consisting so far of “The Independent Woman”, “The Man of the House”, and “The Misfit”. Next week is “The Crusader”. The show features writers, actors, producers, and programmers, discussing the particularities of these characters and their shows in relation to their historical and cultural contexts.
The series is important in a number of ways, primarily because it verifies the value of television in American culture. The first two episodes have also been particularly important in tracking the changing gender roles in female and male characters over the past six decades, the ways that television has both responded to and helped to bring about some of those changes. The episodes have tackled some issues of sexuality, and even some issues of class. However, one issue seems to be glaringly overlooked, one that seems glaringly obvious to me from the screen cap of clips below.
That is the issue of race. Each episode, I’ve been looking, hoping, wondering when the producers were going to make a significant stab at discussing race in relation to the characters, the series, the industry, and American culture. So far, not so much. Firstly, there’s the overwhelming level of whiteness in the characters, the producers, and the programmers that goes unaddressed. This might be expected, but that’s still a part of the problem. However, secondly and perhaps less expectedly, there is the issue of the characters of color who are not framed in relation to race. For example, THE COSBY SHOW is noted solely as a reconstruction of the father as the head of the house. The only time I can recall race being specifically mentioned is in the segment on THE BERNIE MAC SHOW, with an excerpt from the show when Bernie Mac mentions that he doesn’t want his sister’s kids to go to a white family “but it’s not about race”. It might have come up in terms of the Cristina Yang character on GREY’S ANATOMY, but it’s very quickly subsumed by the assertion that the storyline is intended to be a female friendship “love story” between Cristina and Meredith, a colorblind doc treatment of a colorblind series if there ever was one.
Now I realize that the treatment of race in this doc series may simply be a reflection of the very thing that the series is intending to study. It seems fitting that a medium that has a history of under- and misrepresenting racial minorities should have a doc treatment that mirrors such a history. The next episode, “The Crusaders”, might have more. The thumbnail for the episode features Michael K. Williams, who plays Omar from THE WIRE. However, a cursory glance over the featured participants for the episode shows that Williams may be the only person of color represented. Overall, these omissions might reflect the current state of the industry, but still represent a missed opportunity to actually address those issues within that state.