Wednesday, July 8, 2009

No More "Token Blacks", Please.

I've been addicted to CBS' Harper's Island since the first of its 13 episodes. For those unaware, HI is a miniseries in which a group of twentysomething urban hipsters attending a wedding on a remote island near Vancouver, BC. who are we kidding? Seattle get killed one by one by a serial killer long presumed to be dead. A classic murder mystery with a hint of slasher movie-style violence, the show definitely pushes the envelope of what's acceptable on network TV. Seriously, if all network TV was this good, I wouldn't have a need for the TeeVee Sux tag. Sadly, the show comes to an end with its series finale this Saturday. I'm obviously hoping its relatively good ratings translate into more shows of the type. Don't be fooled by the cheesy promo, this is pretty good TV. If you wanna catch up, you can peep full episodes on No, that was not a paid plug.

But one thing that's sorta bugged me about the show from jump is the "obligatory token black guy" named Danny, the brotha who got about 0.4 seconds of face time in that promo you just watched. Danny is billed in the credits as "The College Buddy", but reality is, they could have called him "the black dude with no lines" and been just as accurate. Of the cast of nearly 3 dozen characters, Danny is the only minority. He's also the only character who is completely inconsequential. He never says or does anything that doesn't compliment the show's main characters. He isn't given even an inkling of a storyline or backstory of his own. While all the other characters are busy bonin' each other on the regular, he has no love interest to speak of. He has no family of his own. His sole purpose in life is to provide one-liners that either support or make the show's main characters laugh. He is a Mystical Negro, minus the magic. He is for all intents and purposes, a human prop.

I know what you're thinking: this is a horror show, so on which episode did he die? Well, oddly, even though he is little more than a background character, Danny has somehow miraculously managed to make it through 12 episodes unscathed, which completely undermines the whole "black folks die first in horror movies" stereotype. On a show whose entire premise is "who dies next?", this is pretty confounding.

In a move merely underscoring just how weak Danny's character is, peep the show's website. The final episode is this weekend. The show's premise every week is "pick the victim". My counting could be off, but I think there are only 7 characters remaining. So, peep this sh*t.

Uhmm, where the *!@# is Danny?!? C'mon CBS, that's jive weak. Danny, you need a new agent, bruh.

I guess my question is sorta silly, but play along anyway. For years the NAACP and other organizations have rallied against Hollyweird for more diversity in primetime TeeVee casting. This hasn't necessarily resulted in any tangible difference. Most shows have, at most, 1-2 black or Latino characters, whose jobs are to do little more than support and otherwise coddle the white stars.[1] The demise of the black sitcom has been well documented. The black drama is about as common as a John Stockton dunk. I might could be crazy, but I'd swear the NAACP's protests didn't exactly work as planned.

In the end, if all we get outta the deal is a few token characters here and there, what exactly is the point? I'll really rather just look at an all-white cast than be insulted by "obligatory Negroes". Diversity should ideally be about different faces being the star, not merely the supporting cast. Could you imagine the Lakers with 11 Luke Waltons and one DJ Mbenga? Me neither. After years of activism, we're still not quite there just yet.

But for the record, my money says Danny makes it off the island. We'll see Saturday.

Question: How important is diversity in casting of primetime TV shows? Is merely having "faces of color" good enough, or do the characters need to be integral to the story to actually count? Got any particularly awkward examples of token Black characters on TeeVee? Do you watch Harper's Island? Is Danny gonna make it off the island, or will he be turned into yet another John Wakefield victim?

Harper's Island Official Website []

[1] Notable exception: The one sista on ABC's Private Practice, who actually gets painted as a real, living, breathing character who actually "matters".

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