I realize that the show strives to heavily repeat the success of the original show, with much of the same structure. But how is it that, in 2010, we still have the minority characters acting as local 'color' (in all senses of the word) in a setting where they should be the stars of the show? Is repeating the premise of the original show justification enough? Do we really expect nothing more from ourselves as viewers than the blinders we had on back in the '60s and '70s (the original show's era), where white men were almost always the center of the story?
Undercovers also premiered last week, which shows that black people have finally earned the chance to star in fluff shows for the masses. Gorgeous leads, somewhat silly setup, lots of jet-setting around. If the show does poorly, it will be for lack of 'substance' and not for the choice of its stars. I am old enough to remember seeing some of the first TV commercials to feature black actors as regular people, promoting regular products—and feeling my heart clench, because as dumb as the context was, that was progress. Undercovers is progress.
But where have we arrived, overall?
We have many more actors of color on television, in regularly-recurring (though rarely #1 lead) roles. But we also have a fairly regular formula for it too: white lead (usually male), other white actors (at least one of them female), one black person, and one Hispanic person. It's as if the casting director hits the 'magic formula' and thinks, "My work here is done." It's good that we've come far enough that this is our new "norm," but we seem to be stuck here. Of the shows I've watched in the last couple of years, these follow the formula to the letter: Without A Trace, Cold Case (bonus black character in some seasons), The Closer (ditto), Lie To Me, 24, Law&Order Classic, Castle, The Chase (premiered last week), Prison Break, Reaper, and Criminal Minds (well, the Garcia character's name is Hispanic, anyway). House, M.D. is missing the Hispanic character, and so are Law&Order:SVU, Fringe, Psych, and White Collar (last season's Hispanic agent was the weakest character). Some shows (and I adore them, but it must be said) are still overwhelmingly and oddly white: Chuck, Supernatural, Burn Notice, and others I've stopped watching (Desperate Housewives, Brothers and Sisters). Glee has double the minority characters for all 3 major groups. Lost and ER, both of which I gave up on years ago, had everything and everyone. But still, most of the characters were white. The new Hawaii 5-0 has Asian characters (in secondary roles), but there is an appalling lack of Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders. How is that even possible?
To clarify, when I say "Asian" I'm speaking as a North American, where our version of "Asian" covers ethnicities such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. Europeans tend to mean East-Indian and Pakistani with that term, but that's a different group for us (and for the Hollywood media machine). Regardless, East-Indians/Pakistanis and Asians seem to get about the same rare coverage: Crossing Jordan, The Good Wife, House M.D., E.R., and Aliens In America (key to the premise). For other Asians, we have E.R., Grey's Anatomy, Hawaii 5-0, The Closer, and The Mentalist.
My list is probably fairly skewed, in that I tend to like dramas (particularly those with a police and legal focus) and rarely watch sitcoms. But I know there are more than a miniscule number of Asians in medicine, and the numbers for the legal profession and law enforcement have to be larger than a single agent in the fictional CBI.
I also know that there are more Asian men available for television casting than Daniel Dae Kim, though he's incredibly talented and handsome, and highly sought after for both those reasons.
It's wonderful to see (some) better roles for women, and to have greater diversity in casting. I don't want to downplay any of that.
But we have a long way to go, and there are questions no-one seems to be asking.
It isn't always "Who did The Powers That Be remember to cast?"
Sometimes, it's "Who, after all this time, is still consistently being overlooked?"