Tuned In

New Girl, Brooklyn 9-9, and Breaking the “One Black Friend” Pattern

It's still a rarity to see a major-network sitcom in which "a black friend" is not "the black friend."

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Greg Gayne/FOX

Yesterday we learned that Damon Wayans Jr. is sticking around at New Girl for the rest of season 3 in his role as Coach. This was great news for a couple of reasons. First, as fans who’ve watched the show from the beginning will remember, he was the best thing in the pilot, before Happy Endings was renewed by ABC and took him away. And while he was replaced by the also very funny Lamorne Morris, it was a good move for the writers to explain Coach’s departure–and reference him in later episodes–rather than simply recast and reshoot the role.

But it’s also a welcome change because it makes New Girl a rarity in TV today: a major-network sitcom with more than one African American character in its regular ensemble–a comedy about friends in which “a black friend” isn’t “the black friend.”

The big networks have had a notoriously sketchy track record on casting diversity–better some seasons, terrible other seasons. The reaction has tended to be adding minority characters to shows with largely white casts. That affects the overall math, of course, but it has the side effect of replicating a universe in which black–or Asian, Latino, &c.–characters are scattered, uniformly and singly.

The actual world, of course, is more complicated. American social and work groups in real life don’t follow dutiful patterns of representation. Small social groups are not precise statistical microcosms of a population. Some are largely white, some are largely minority, and–shocker!–will have some white people and more than one person of the same minority race. Yet it’s less surprising these days to see, say, two Carys in the same law firm on The Good Wife than two black dudes who happen to be friends on a network sitcom.

This has partly been a factor of content. Traditionally, family comedies are the most likely sitcoms to have minority characters of the same race–because, well, they’re family sitcoms–but since the ’00s days of The WB, UPN, and Bernie Mac, those have become rare outside cable networks targeted at minority viewers, kids’ networks, or comedies produced by Tyler Perry. (Dramas have done somewhat better, partly because of the subject matter–more workplaces, schools, &c.–and partly because of the casting of some creatives like Shonda Rhimes.)

Which means, more and more, sitcoms’ reliance on “the black friend.” (Or, the Hispanic friend, the Asian friend…) The exceptions are scarce: Troy and Shirley on Community; Glee, if you count that as a comedy; Parks and Recreation, depending on your definition. (That is, Rashida Jones is biracial, but having seen every episode I can’t recall Ann Perkins’ ethnicity.)

Dropping in single minority characters is better than a total whitewash, at least. (Call it bean-counting if you want; the problem is that, historically, if you have no bean counting at all you eventually end up with a pot of white beans.) But the ideal would be TV that’s diverse among shows rather than within each individual show, TV that looks like life: some casts largely one race, some largely another, some of various races but with, say, a couple of Asian leads for no reason other than sometimes that happens.

HBO has had some examples of this: The Wire and Treme had highly African American casts; Big Love was very white, because, you know, Utah; shows like How to Make It in America were multicultural because their setting was. Not to say HBO’s perfect here: people might have had less issue with the whiteness of Girls–even in Brooklyn–if there were more examples of pay-cable sitcoms that weren’t so white.

Brooklyn Nine Nine

Eddy Chen/FOX

This season was no beacon of racial enlightenment on TV–I give you Dads–but there are signs of improvement in this regard anyway. New Girl’s casting may have been an accident (Wayans was available again after Happy Endings was canceled), but it’s good anyway to see two black men, in a mixed-race cast, who are friends just because. They have a history, Coach has been kind of a jerk to Winston in the past, and that’s it. (Not that the show pretends race doesn’t exist: in Wayans’ return episode, Coach had a run-in with a romantic rival who was a cop, and Winston asks if his friends have heard the one about the two black guys and two white guys who go into a police station: “The two white guys leave.”)

And on the sitcom that leads into New Girl, Brooklyn 9-9, the diversity is very conscious, not for p.c. reasons but simple realism. As its co-creators have said, it’s a New York City police show, and New York’s police department is about half minority. So you’ll see two Latina detectives who are very different personalities, because why not? You’ll see Andre Braugher and Terry Crews (who had a fantastic episode this week), sharing a subplot about Crews’ character’s annoying brother-in-law–not because they’re bonded as the precinct’s black characters, but simply because they work together, and it’s life–and, you know, in-laws, amirite?

It’s only a start, but it suggests a way for TV to reflect its audience, not just in numbers but actual circumstances. Writing in Jezebel earlier this week, Lindy West responded to the outcry over Saturday Night Live’s lack of black women case members by urging the show to hire two black women. The idea was that any single black female comic hired on the show now would face intense scrutiny and pressure, and West has a good point.

But there’s another reason: sometimes, a show should just have two black women on it, because sometimes in life, there just are two black women in the same place. (Again: or men, or Indian, or Middle Eastern, or…) TV should be diverse because of fairness, but above all because it should reflect the world. And it doesn’t just take all kinds to make the world. It takes all combinations.