Quick. Were there any black characters on “Friends,” anyone?
If so, they were background players. And not to single out a favorite comedy series, it was and is among the majority of television shows whose core Caucasian-ness is an attribute, rightly or wrongly.
Diversity is an issue that has long simmered on the back burner and intermittently moves to the front, as in these early days of summer that have brought a raft of criticism leveled at several showrunners for the all white-ness of their casts.
Specifically, Lena Dunham, whose “Girls” on HBO has been compared to the pay cabler’s vaunted “Sex and the City,” and Amy Sherman-Palladino (ABC Family’s “Bunheads”) have come under fire for being purveyors of white bread.
Dunham foresaw before her freshman series aired that it would be perceived as another show whose world did not include people of color. “When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, ‘I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.’ You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that,” she had said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
There is definitely going to be a second season, and Dunham followed through by reportedly adding a black cast member to her acclaimed series, although Donald Glover’s casting is apparently still unofficial.
Meanwhile, Palladino initially said she did not want to get into what she called a “pissing match” with “fellow” female showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who criticized her on Twitter for the lack of any people of color on the new program about young ballerinas.
For those of you who missed it, Sherman-Palladino, best known for creating “Gilmore Girls,” said in an interview that she didn’t have a big budget for casting, was under a great deal of time pressure to cast the pilot and that she felt unsupported by other women in the industry.
Read between the lines: she was referring specifically to Rhimes, after pointing out the latter’s success with multiple shows including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal.”
“I don’t do message shows. I don’t give a shit who you learn your life from. Someone said, ‘Oh god, I hope we don’t see the eating disorder show. You won’t because I don’t give a flying f— about that,” Sherman-Palladino was quoted as saying, perhaps adding fuel to the fire but also planting her firmly on the shortlist of people in Hollywood who say what they really think.
The lack of diversity accusation cannot be leveled at Oxygen’s “The Glee Project,” currently in the midst of its second season. For those who haven’t caught it yet, the program features contestants vying for a seven-episode guest spot arc on Fox’s “Glee” under the tutelage of its creator, Ryan Murphy, and other mentors including casting director Robert Ulrich, choreographer Zach Woodlee and vocal producer Nikki Anders.
The 14 contenders, currently down to nine, are culled through intensive rounds of workshops, singing, dancing and acting-based assignments as the creative forces of “Glee,” including guest mentors like Lea Michele and Kevin McHale, make judgments on who has what it takes to be one of the next new faces on the award-winning show.
Many of those faces are of color. One of contestants recently eliminated, Tyler Ford, epitomized several shades of census with his ethnicity: half black, half white, Jewish and transgender, and was considered by many to be an inspiration because of his diverse background.
To its credit, “The Glee Project” not only spotlights ethnic diversity, but also disability, with one of this season’s contestants confined to a wheelchair and another who is blind. Another aspirant has been diagnosed with severe ADHD and low-spectral autism.
Each episode has a theme, ranging from the initial episode’s “Individuality” to the recent “Vulnerability,” during which Oxygen aired an anti-bullying PSA starring “Glee’s” Cory Monteith as part of an ongoing partnership with The Bully Project, an organization dedicated to ending bullying.
In a similar show of commitment, this reality competition show seems dedicated to busting some stereotypes and giving opportunities to people who because of their disabilities may have been shoved to the margins of society.
Perhaps one of its talented performers could also join the cast of “Bunheads.”
(“The Glee Project” airs Tuesdays on Oxygen at 10pm ET/PT)