The Baltimore Uprising and How TV Dramas Can Make A "Race" Episode That Works

The Hollywood Race, Part VI

TV Features Baltimore
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In The Hollywood Race, Shannon Houston examines the dynamics of race and culture as they play out in film, television, music and pop culture.

Here at Paste we recently published a fantastic list of five TV shows that provide great insight into another culture. Roxanne Sancto, one of our contributors from across the pond, introduced us to freaky reality shows like Shoot and Swallow and the German series Turkish for Beginners. But there was one entry that initially struck me as odd—The Wire, set in Baltimore, Maryland. While the show could certainly play as a foreign series to a UK writer, I had to consider that I was editing the article for an American audience. But as I read the entry, and thought about the series and Baltimore itself I realized that part of the obsession with the show was that sensation of the other. For many American viewers, Baltimore might as well have been in another country—that’s how foreign the narrative seemed, and for that reason, the show fit in perfectly with the list. But, perhaps unintentionally, our writer also sent a powerful message about huge divides in America and the American experience, divides which are being further highlighted and exposed by the Baltimore Uprising.

Since The Wire, there haven’t been many shows that have existed in such an atmosphere of racial and economic difference. In more recent years, we’ve gotten shows like Power, Empire, Survivor’s Remorse, as well as comedies like Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat, which are inspiring conversations about race, racism, and the varied cultural experiences of the American public—though certainly not in the same vein as The Wire. In addition to these shows, the events surrounding victims of police brutality in the past year have inspired other shows to weigh in on the discussion. While South Park presented us with “The Magic Bush,” two of the most popular episodes occurred on The Good Wife and Scandal—and both attempts failed, for a number of reasons.

It could be argued that the failure stemmed from the fact that TV should err on the side of entertaining their audiences, and should not be experienced through the lens of politics or social issues. Butt I’m of the opinion that such a viewing is both impossible and incredibly boring. There’s nothing wrong with the “race” episode, per se, and there are ways they can be done well. And if The Good Wife and Scandal writers were bold enough to take on Ferguson, I’m hoping they’ll do the same for Baltimore, or the next city to rise up against systemic racism and the oft government-sanctioned murder of people of color.

But if they do so, I want them to get it right—especially a show like The Good Wife, where the protagonist and main characters, for the most part, are not people of color. When a predominantly white cast takes on the issue of race with boldness and nuance (last year’s Starred Up is a great example of how a piece can do this), it can be even more exciting to watch—that is to say a“race” episode on The Good Wife can send an even stronger message than, say, racial dialogue on a show like Empire or Black-ish, where such themes are partly anticipated. So here are three ways TV dramas can start making race episodes that work—and it starts with embracing the comedic approach.

Option A: Go Hard or Go Home

One of the most exciting, important, and hilarious TV events in the past few weeks had to be the “Football Town Nights” sketch from Inside Amy Schumer.

“Clear Eyes, full hearts, don’t rape” along with “No Raping!” are phrases forever etched into my consciousness. As bold and as dangerous (though, admittedly, not as catchy, but more useful as general messages) as Dave Chappelle’s “F— yo couch!” or “I’m Rick James, bitch!” Schumer broke the rules (i.e. rape isn’t funny) and made one of the most powerful statements one could make about our judicial system’s approach to rape and rape survivors—that it’s sexist and, perhaps worse than that, completely illogical. She went hard, and TV dramas looking to create an episode that tackles race and racism need to do the same. Or go home.

This year The Good Wife made an attempt to take on the case of Ferguson, Missouri’s Mike Brown with an episode that partly suffered because it was filmed after the murder, but before the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who killed him—the real life story had gone on, so the episode felt like it had both predicted the future (with this fear of rioting as part of the plot), but also lost some of its timeliness. But the other reason “The Debate” was criticized, is because it didn’t really commit to the narrative in a way that made sense. The episode spent too much time with less compelling storylines (like Peter Florrick’s infidelities), and even seemed to send mixed messages with a strange scene where Alicia and her opponent held an impromptu debate of sorts in a kitchen, where all the people of color were working.

Alicia is, often, dripping with privilege, but it was really highlighted in this moment—a moment in an episode that could have made a much bolder statement about Alicia’s status and how the same system that afforded her such privilege is the same system responsible for the fact that the kitchen staff was as full of color as her law firm Florrick Agos Lockhart isn’t. “The Debate” should have and could have gone harder. If you’re going to take on racism, boldly go to a place where viewers are uncomfortable. Even those of us who were uncomfortable watching “Football Town Nights,” and hearing our beloved Josh Charles say, “Don’t let the door rape you on the way out,” found ourselves laughing, and, more importantly, excited about the way this issue was being well, forced upon us, in a way.

Scandal also disappointed with this season’s “The Lawn Chair.” Initially, many of us were pleased to see that the show had put Olivia Pope in a position where she had her own privilege checked. One protest leader brilliantly points out her Prada bag, and tells her “We don’t want the same thing. You want to put it to bed quietly and tell everyone that you came down to the hood and saved us. No thanks, Olivia. Your black card’s not getting validated today.” But the finale of the episode was a slap in the face, even more bizarre and ridiculous than The Good Wife’s kitchen scene. Shonda Rhimes admitted that she and the writers had trouble deciding on whether to give the episode a more realistic ending, but ultimately decided to go with something “hopeful.” However, what many of us saw, was a strange, magical world where a police officer who killed an unarmed black man was brought to justice, and the black man defending his son by holding the crime scene and the dead body hostage, all while aiming a rifle at policemen was rewarded with “justice” for his son, and a trip to Disneyland! Just kidding, it was a trip to the White House, but it felt like the same thing.

Scandal did not need to give its huge audience an imaginary world where justice is served because, unfortunately, many people believe that such a world is the America we live in. If you’re going to make a “race” episode, why support those delusions? And Rhimes’ message implies that there can be no hope if we look at things as they really are (which isn’t true—clearly people fighting for rights fight from a place of hope, in the midst of violence and despair), when a proper closing could have, instead, shown the true, long-lasting, and devastating effects of killings like the one in “The Lawn Chair.” Maybe it wouldn’t have made us feel all warm and gooey inside, but this is a Shonda Rhimes production—she’s known for not caring about how sad the fans might be after a night with her. In other words, if she can kill off Derek Shepherd, she can give us a brutally honest race episode.

Amy Schumer’s skit also highlights another issue here, which is the fearlessness of great comedy—a fearlessness I hope TV dramas will embrace more, especially when politics and social issues are on the table. The reason many of us are still mourning the loss of Chappelle’s Show (yes, even with the excellence of Key & Peele is because we had this fearless voice that it seemed like everyone was willing to listen to, and that felt good. In the past week, I’ve seen some semblance of that, with people like Jon Stewart, and Larry Wilmore who have also used comedy to address Baltimore’s Uprising. Just because a TV drama isn’t a comedy, or a sketch show, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be willing to break a few rules to embrace that “go hard or go home mentality”—one that we desperately need more of, if we’re going to highlight some of the ignorance and outright ridiculousness that contributes to these huge societal problems.

Option B: Embrace Everyday Racism/Stop Making The “Race” Episode The “Riot” Episode

In a recent episode of his nightly show, Jon Stewart summed it up like this: “There appear to be only two points on the scale: normal and on fire.”

In other words, if you’re a Baltimore government official, maybe don’t wait to declare a State of Emergency when everything is literally on fire. I offer the same advice to TV dramas—the “race” episode doesn’t have to be synonymous with the “urban riot” episode. So-called everyday racism is just as compelling, and offers just as much drama as martial law. And maybe if we had more of those, we wouldn’t need the “race/riot/oh yeah, racism is a big issue in America” episode.

One excellent example is the Deadline article published back in March, on the highs and lows of “ethnic casting.” In a piece we ultimately were unable to publish in a timely manner, a fellow Paste writer took the article to task with such wonderfully poetic venom, I couldn’t help but wish it could appear in some scene—any scene—in one of my favorite TV dramas. I could see Alicia Florrick taking on a client who’d been sued for slander after publishing something like this:

If you’re part of the known universe, you might have spotted yesterday’s now-infamous Deadline article entitled “Pilots 2015: The Year Of Ethnic Castings – About Time Or Too Much Of Good Thing?” written by Deadline’s TV editor Nellie Andreeva. Leaving aside the inanity of the headline (really, that’s all you need) this was quite possibly the most tone-deaf, ignorant thing I have ever read. It brought white privilege (and the bile in my throat) to new levels, and had I 2,000 words to spare, I would still not be finished excoriating this dunderheaded, blatantly racist piece of garbage.

What do I take away from the piece? What message do I have for Ms. Andreeva (and her editors)?

Next time, save yourself the effort and bandwidth, and just call me “nigger.”—Mark Rabinowitz

A racist article on Deadline does not inspire protests in the streets, or a TIME magazine cover, but maybe it should. It’s all fuel for the racist fire, and these great Golden Age of TV writers should have no problem building a compelling narrative around such an event.

The other “great” part about everyday racism is that it’s everywhere; we don’t have to wait for a another murder, or another city uprising to have another race episode. Consider all of those people who have been fired for posting racist Facebook status updates. Can you imagine an episode where Olivia Pope finds herself (for whatever reason) defending someone a la that assistant Wayne County prosecutor? Last week she posted her resolution for the police in Baltimore having trouble with the Baltimore protestors: “Solution. Simple. Shoot em. Period. End of discussion.”

I can imagine such an episode, and I know, in the hands of Shonda Rhimes, it could be pretty amazing.

Once again, I’ll argue for drama to imitate comedy, where it’s often the smaller, more specific bits in a routine or sketch that make it work best. “Football Town Nights” was not funny because it was about “rape.” It was funny in the way that it highlighted the little, vicious messages we send when we ask certain questions about the act (i.e. “What if she was dressed like a sexy owl?”). Another example might be the so-called abortion episode during the first season of Girls. Instead of “Vagina Panic” focusing on Jess’ abortion (an event that she could barely focus on), the episode sort of became about Marnie’s abortion party, the self-centeredness of the girls, Jess’ flakiness, etc. This idea of focusing on the small, specific bits is actually a great lesson that you learn early on in critical analysis. Reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? You’re better off tackling the Jim Trueblood scene, than the topic of “race.” We might call this approach the “Go small or go home,” method, where TV writers might trust the viewer to appreciate a more nuanced approach that understands racial issues in America exist and thrive at many points other than “normal” and “on fire.”

Option C or What TV dramas can learn from Mad Men about the Race Episode: Don’t do One

If Mad Men had a race episode at all, it might have been the Season Five opener “Little Kiss.” But few of us remember it that way, even though it opened with black protestors on Madison Avenue, and closed with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce officially opening its doors to prospective black employees (secretaries, in this case). In spite of all that, it’s really the “Zou Bisou Bisou” episode, and that makes sense for the world of Mad Men. There have been plenty of critiques about the lack of characters of color, or proper time spent on racial issues on the show, but I’ve always loved the seemingly smaller moments of racial tension. Carla getting fired by Betty, Roger in blackface, Lane Pryce’s girlfriend Toni (never forget), and of course the jokes between Dawn and Shirley about getting confused for each other in the office.

Personally, I love a show that weaves in this kind of commentary, as seamlessly as it weaves in commentary about everything else, without making a big to-do about it. We know race isn’t on everyone’s minds, all of the time. But when TV dramas give us their New Important Timely Episode Which Will Tackle The American Race Problem, and then spend the rest of the season ignoring these problems altogether (and I wouldn’t necessarily argue that The Good Wife or Scandal are doing this, exactly), this actually speaks volumes about the real problem of American race relations, where consistent, realistic, public, ongoing dialogue is still not happening.

As we see issues like sexuality and gender becoming more commonly addressed by TV writers (largely thanks to the feminist movement, which is indeed being televised), we need to see the same shift for race and racism. A new approach to these issues on the TV shows we all love could actually change the world (because an excellent TV show can do that). In 2015, Baltimore, Maryland—whether on TV or in real life—should not feel (or look) like a foreign country to Americans, and actual race dialogue should not sound like a foreign language.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.

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