Watching Me On TV: Reflections About Blacks in Prime Time Past
I’m not old, but I am mature. I’m not in the let’s-go-clubbin’-this-Saturday-night set, but I’m still in the coveted demographic that advertisers like. I’m old enough to remember when vampires were scary—not hot. And I do have those wonderful memories of big, boxy television consoles with three major networks and some local stations with really bad programming. Color television shows were a major big deal, so much so that announcers would actually let you know—“The F.B.I.— in color!” That was probably because not a lot of folks had a color TV set. It’s also cool to see how the physical television itself has evolved. I was part of the generation that sat down with the whole family in front of a huge TV as a piece of living room furniture. We didn’t have a remote control—well, the adults did. We children served as the official channel changers. No VCRs. That would be Video Cassette Recorders, kids. If you missed your favorite show, too bad. Now there’s a sleek, flat screen in every room—connected to a DVR, of course.
Color TV. That held a different meaning in my neighborhood. I’m on the cusp of being called “colored” before we sequed into being called “black.” Back then, it was so rare to see a black person on TV that when we did, we’d get on the phone and call relatives. “Aunt Shirley, quick, there’s a colored woman on channel 2!! In the late 60s I loved watching Diahann Carroll in Julia, a show about a widowed single nurse and her young son Corey. That was a first— to have a black female lead. (It’s still a first.) Julia lived in a very nice apartment building. There was Clarence Williams as Linc on The Mod Squad. Bill Cosby had a self-titled show that came on Sunday nights. He was a gym teacher. There was Room 222, where there were several positive black characters in the fictional Walt Whitman High School, like Lloyd Nolan as the respected social studies teacher and Denise Nicholas as the guidance counselor. Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) graced the small screen weekly informing Captain Kirk that “the communication channels are open.”
In the 70s, things took a stupid turn. Gone were the positive images. We had to endure the likes of Good Times, Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons. It still was slim pickings for us, so we laughed at JJ and his endless “dynomite” rantings,and Fred Sanford always calling Lamont a big dummy. George Jefferson lived on the east side, but his worldview was Ghetto Ave. The shows were funny then, but as many back-in-the-day reruns that I now watch, those three are and will NEVER be on my TV. I guess TV was reflective of the movies, which at the time was the “blaxploitation” era, where images of the pimp, the downtrodden and the larger-than-life supercop prevailed.
The 70s did bring us arguably the most spectacular mini series of all time, Roots. Anybody who was anybody in black Hollywood was in it, and the show was grand to see. In fact, anybody who was anybody in TV land at the time was in it. Like I said, there were no VCRs or DVRs, so everybody made sure they were in front of the television as to not miss a second. And woe to the person who dared call while Roots was on… Roots dominated conversations for days afterward in school. And in classes where there was a black teacher, we’d spend the whole class period discussing it.
Bill Cosby was our TV liberator in the 80s. The Cosby Show was loved by all. There were those in the beginning who felt that such a show with black leads was “unrealistic”—we simply did not have two-parent households where the couple was loving towards each other, had professional careers, had normal kids and lived in a nice house. ABC passed on Cosby. NBC flourished because of the show. Now in my frame of reference, Cosby was the reality. That’s how I grew up. Good Times definitely was not the norm. I loved A Different World, the Cosby Show spin-off. It was fun seeing young black adults in college, and their day-to-day shenanigans too were my reality.
The 90s had some fairly decent comedies. At least they portrayed blacks positively, like Roc, Living Single, and Family Matters. (Urkel was pushing it!) My personal beef with TV programming is there are no black dramas. There are plenty of jivey comedies to go around, especially on the CW and the WB, but they don’t interest me. It may be heresy to say, but I don’t like Meet the Browns and House of Payne. Love and admire Tyler Perry; hate his shows and the farcical characters. Soul Food (2000) was cool, but if you didn’t have Showtime, you couldn’t see it. Black people are in dramas, but they are never the stars. If so, it’s a one-way ticket to Cancelville, hence Under One Roof (1995), City of Angels (2000) and just recently, The Number One Ladies Detective Agency (2009) and Undercovers (2010).
I have accepted that there is always going to be a small number of black folks on television, although we are creators, directors, and producers of some programming. I try not to get too attached to a black-centric show because I know the shelf life is very short and it will not be given the chance to find its audience. Being a TV-aholic, if I'm going to relax in front of the tube and DVR with my favorite shows, it can’t matter whether blacks are in them or not. We may not be the stars, but there are lots of excellent black actors on the small screen in really good roles. Along with the requisite cops and lawyers, there are powerful aldermen and mayoral candidates, hospital chiefs of staff, forensics experts, superheroes and presidents. Certain actors will cause me to give a show at least one look. I started watching Memphis Beat because of Alfre Woodard. I came back to CSI because of Laurence Fishburne. I checked out Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior because of Forest Whitaker. I tell my friends and family about them. Even now, I still get excited about watching “me” on TV.