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Social Studies

The Devil Made Me Watch It

By Vincent Williams | Posted 5/4/2005

In my self-appointed role as a semiprofessional armchair observer of American popular culture, there is one issue that I am very passionate about. I am speaking, of course, of the subject of diversity in television. Regardless of your views on the form’s artistic worth, it’s inarguably the most prevalent medium presenting us with images of humanity and, thus, when you’re speaking of the types of these images, it’s very serious business. After a great deal of study and thought, I’ve come to one conclusion: They need to bring back shows where people change into something else.

I don’t mean some Hallmark-style “examination of the human spirit,” she-goes-through-a-fundamental-change type programming. I mean, there need to be more shows like Manimal, a fine ’80s program that explored the adventures of a man who changed into animals, ergo the name. I’m talking about Automan, a show about a guy who changed into, well, you know. And, of course, you can’t continue this discussion without referring to the Hamlet of the “Guy Changes Into Stuff” subgenre, The Incredible Hulk. Man, how good was that?

I think complaints about other sorts of diversity would subside a little if there were more shows where a transformation was integral to the overall plot. Because, right now, everything looks the same on TV. It’s always a bunch of people in New York or Los Angeles or, y’know, somewhere else that looks just like New York or L.A. (and is probably all Canada anyway). Everyone is a doctor, lawyer, police officer, blah, blah, blah. Hell, I’m pretty sure three-quarters of the shows on TV have CSI or Law and Order in their titles. It’s all just so samey.

Y’know what else we could use? Shows that center around some type of futuristic vehicle. Yeah, everyone talks about KITT, the talking Trans Am from Knight Rider, but they forget about Airwolf, a series about a “superhelicopter” that was on for four years. I’m not even going to mention the show with the supermotorcycle, but that’s mainly because I can’t remember what the name was. I swear it was Street Hawk, but my research isn’t bearing that out. Still, dude, supermotorcycle.

I would argue that, on a subconscious level, this lack of the fantastic on the tube is part of the reason people are so sensitive about the lack of other types of diversity in television. It’s sort of cliché to point out the unbearable whiteness of shows like Seinfeld or Friends, but the reason it became an issue was because the shows were set in New York, arguably the most diverse place on Earth. Now, if one of the vanilla Friends was played by a little robot or a talking dog, or instead of New York, it was set underwater, then, well, nobody’s mad.

Put it this way, The George Lopez Show has gotten reams of press because its all-Latino cast counterbalances more white-bread programming to be more reflective of modern America. That’s all well and good, but no one ever talks about the racially diverse duo of Mexican-born Ricardo Montalban and Filipino-descended Hervé Jean-Pierre Villechaize on Fantasy Island, because on any given episode there would be a kangaroo, Nipsey Russell, and, oh yeah, the Devil. Think about that. The show’s not about the Devil—he’s just one thing that could show up. It could be pirates, robots, sea monsters, werewolves, or, some weeks, the Devil. Air a show so bizarre that you relegate the Devil to special guest-star status, and I guarantee no one will take notice of the racial makeup of the cast.

Speaking of scary-ass Fantasy Island, I want shows with rotating casts of guest stars. Forget this only-during-sweeps, special episode of Will and Grace featuring Jessica Simpson stuff. I want The Love Boat. I want Charo and Charles Nelson Reilly and Willie Tyler and Lester, or, y’know, their contemporary equivalents. And while we’re at it, I want talk shows where the guests aren’t just there to hawk whatever immediately forgettable project they’re in. I just saw an old episode of The Flip Wilson Show where the guests were Mahalia Jackson, Leslie Uggams, and Joe Namath. That’s what I’m talking about. Folks want colorful. I want colorful.

I have to admit, J.J. Abrams is bringing it to network television a little bit. I dig Alias so much that I rarely think about how the black guy never gets to do much because, well, they’re all spies, and who knows how that works? And Lost is my shit, with all the monsters and magic and funky stuff. But, even with those two shows, until someone changes into a talking dolphin or something, I’ll still yearn for more diversity on television.

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