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Scandal taught ABC to make its shows more diverse

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

As a reminder, I'm at the summer Television Critics Association press tour through next week. If you're curious about what that means, read a quick explanation here. And follow my writing from the tour at my blog.

After Paul Lee, the president of the ABC entertainment group, finished with his executive session at his network's day at the summer TCA press tour, a colleague remarked to me that it could be best summed up with the far-too-catchy song from The Lego Movie: "Everything Is Awesome." On its face, Lee's optimism seems absurd. ABC has struggled for several years now, and every time it takes one step forward with a Modern Family or a Scandal, it seems to take seven or eight steps back, thanks to poor scheduling decisions and simple bad luck.

But here's the thing: ABC is a part of Disney. And Disney is doing very, very well. In fact, at the network's May presentation designed to sell advertisers on buying commercial time in the fall lineup, the clips package of ABC properties included a bunch of other stuff Disney owns, just because. There was Frozen! And all of the Marvel characters! And Star Wars! So even if ABC struggles to stay out of the ratings basement, mostly hoping that another network completely tanks (this year, it was Fox), it doesn't seem to care. Everything really is awesome when you're part of a larger media conglomerate that's doing swimmingly.

There's a big difference between Lee's words and his actions, however. And the actions of ABC leading into this fall are those of a network that's worried about being stuck behind CBS and NBC for another year, a network that wants to come back. Not all of ABC's fall shows are good — one in particular is one of the most actively irritating shows put on U.S. television in quite a while — but they're all at least trying weird, new things. And the network has also bet admirably on the idea that programming a slate of shows that reflect the growing diversity of the nation will help it win an audience that is being underserved by the other networks. After a few years of feeling like it was throwing things at the wall to see what stuck (particularly in its valuable Wednesday night comedy bloc), ABC actually seems like it's doing things that make sense this fall. It could all fail, but maybe Lee's optimism is somewhat warranted for once.

Reflections of America

If the executive session had a theme, it was ping-ponging between those two ideas: the diversity of the network's upcoming slate and the past poor decisions Lee had made. (Also, there was a lot of talk about the network's ‘80s-set family sitcom The Goldbergs, which is entering its second season with a better time slot and a full head of creative steam. Lee said he expects it to be a part of the ABC lineup for a long time to come.)

In particular, the reporters in the room wanted to revisit Lee's seeming disinterest in finding a place for Trophy Wife, a charming family comedy that garnered critical raves but little interest from viewers last season. The show had been widely seen as an ideal match for Modern Family, but Lee said the network's internal numbers suggested that it wasn't organically finding its own audience. That's unlikely to quiet those who insisted the network was idiotic to try Super Fun Night, yet another show about young singles in the city, after TV's biggest family comedy. But ABC has seemingly learned its lesson at the expense of Trophy Wife, as it's launching a traditional family comedy after Modern Family this fall for the first time ever. (Before this year, the network tried Cougar Town, Happy Endings, Suburgatory, and Super Fun Night. All lost substantial portions of the Modern Family audience.)

And that dovetails nicely with the morning's other major theme, because that traditional family comedy ABC is trying this fall is Black-ish, the Anthony Anderson-led series about what it means to be a financially successful black family in 2014 America. It's one of the best comedy pilots of the fall, and it's good almost specifically because of its diversity. Without the element of race, this would just be another show about a rich family, in the vein of its lead-in. But with the element of race, the show quietly becomes about questions of assimilation and cultural appropriation. It's not confrontational about it, like Norman Lear's ‘70s sitcoms about race (The Jeffersons or Good Times, say) were, but it's definitely much more interesting just for having those issues somewhere near its center. Indeed, the major conflict of the pilot involves Anderson's character worrying that he's only gotten a promotion because he's black. That's de facto something that can't happen on most other network sitcoms.

But Black-ish isn't the only diverse option on the network's fall slate. New comedy Cristela (also fairly enjoyable, if slightly too broad) is about a Latina law student and her crazy family. Midseason show Fresh Off the Boat follows an Asian immigrant couple and their kids. And even the more conventional romantic comedy Selfie features John Cho as its male romantic lead and a racially diverse supporting cast. Because ABC's comedy brand trends toward family comedies, this manages to feel organic, too, instead of all of those shows where one actor of color is tossed into a supporting part somewhere. If you're going to tell the story of a Mexican-American law student and her family, that family necessarily has to be of Mexican descent as well.

Lee leaned into this idea, saying he believes the shows won't be isolating to a broad audience, because anyone can relate to the deeper themes of the show. Even if the specifics of Black-ish are about the experience of a successful black family in the United States, the general themes are about trying to hang onto one's cultural heritage in the face of pressures to assimilate, or feeling like an outsider at work. And those are things that are much more broadly relatable. Lee, a British immigrant himself, seemed particularly taken with having two shows featuring immigrant characters in them, and he said he liked how these shows could still make him feel like a member of the families onscreen. It's the sort of specificity that television has increasingly lacked in comedy in recent years, and it's all the more pointed when considered in the face of ABC's one comedy with a majority white cast, Manhattan Love Story, which is a romantic comedy in which nobody ever behaves like a human being.

At the same time, it's worth pointing out that while ABC's executive ranks are much more diverse than they were even a couple of years ago, this is still a network run by a white guy, as is every other broadcast network not named CBS (which is run by Nina Tassler). If television has lagged behind society in terms of how quickly its willing to acknowledge the growing prominence of women and people of color in society, that largely stems from the fact that the people in charge at most levels tend to be white guys. In those terms, at least, Lee seems to be pushing outside of himself just a bit.

"Specificity is so key to great storytelling, great television," Lee said, when asked how he finds a show that he knows will work, and his fall slate nods to this, to be sure. But it also nods toward one of the most reliable old warhorses in television: just doing what's already worked.

Running toward what works

For as much as ABC seems like it's just come up with the idea of diversity all out of nowhere, it seems pretty clear that much of what's driven it is the fact that the network's big hit of the last couple of years is Scandal, a show with a very racially diverse cast, headed by a black woman. Now, much of the reason Scandal took off is because it's one of the most gleefully anarchic shows on TV, fond of throwing its plot into a blender and seeing what comes out. But the show is also hugely successful with non-white audiences, and much of that surely stems from the show's thematic subtext, which is all about how hard everyone who's not a straight, white man has to work to prop up straight white guys who are basically empty suits.

But ABC might be taking a smart approach here. Where other networks are copying the crazy plotting of Scandal in an attempt to clone its success as well, ABC is betting that the show touched a nerve in a country that's increasingly made up of subcultures that add up to a much more diverse, less monolithic mass culture. Its big new drama, for instance, is How to Get Away With Murder, from the production company of Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal and Grey's Anatomy (another ABC hit). That series is headed up by Viola Davis, a great actress whom film has not served as well as it might, and the show allows her to play straight-up antihero. If Rhimes' career is any indication, race, class, and other issues will wind their way into the show, but for now, it's just the sort of darkly comic legal soap the network could have programmed at any time in the last several years. And yet, even beyond Davis, the show has a hugely diverse cast, in a way that never feels focus-grouped.

A lot of that stems from Rhimes, who's used her considerable influence to tug television — or at least ABC — toward a TV world that looks more like the real one. But it also stems from the network taking a chance on the idea that it might follow the lead of its most successful producer in other arenas as well, in hopes that that will crack the code to drag the network back toward first place, or at least second. The distance in the ratings between the big four networks isn't so large that one really good year couldn't catapult ABC up a spot or two. After all, it happened to NBC this year. Maybe diversity is the thing that will make that happen. And, hey, if not, Disney is still doing very, very well.

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