Broadcast networks portray a colorblind America. But if we have one, why are most leads white?
When NBC's "Deception" premieres Monday, it will become one of only two broadcast shows with an African-American woman in the lead — and one of the few broadcast shows with a non-white lead actor.
Not that the show will emphasize that. "Deception," a soapy detective drama, follows the long American tradition of emphasizing class while avoiding the awkward subject of race.
The cynical read of that fact is that broadcast networks hope that by sidestepping a difficult issue, they can make it go away. Or that they just don't want to deal with anything painful or complex, for fear of losing ratings.
The more optimistic interpretation is that TV producers and executives hope to create a post-racial America by beaming one into our living rooms.
If that's the case, it's curious that they cast so many ensembles without regard for race — yet cast so few nonwhite actors in leads.
There was talk after President Obama's first election about whether America had entered a post-racial era – a time when we would acknowledge people's differences, but never harbor bigotry.
If Americans don't see that world in our real lives, we can see it on nearly every network show, from office comedies to police procedurals. Network shows are filled with ensembles that cover every type of demographic. NBC's "The Office" and "Community," with their happy cohabitation of old and young, fat and thin, gay and straight, and many different races, epitomize the new network landscape.
Yet we can list network's current nonwhite lead actors in a few sentences. ABC's "Scandal" stars Kerry Washington as a Washington D.C. fixer. On Fox's "The Mindy Project," Mindy Kaling plays a lovelorn doctor. On CBS, LL Cool J shares top billing on "NCIS: LA." ("The Last Resort," a fall ABC show with Andre Braugher in the lead, has been canceled.)
The lack of nonwhite leads raises questions about how much colorblindness exists in the real America – not the America we see on scripted shows, but the America where studios and networks weigh in on casting decisions, and advertisers decide where to spend their money.
There's no denying the colorblind casting of "Deception." Meagan Good, who happens to be African-American, Puerto Rican and Cherokee, stars as detective Joanne Locasto. Will Moreno, a fellow investigator and her ex, is played by black and Cuban actor Lazaro Alonso.
The script was written — like almost all recent scripts — with no races given for the characters. Alonso's character originally had the very white last name Sakovitch. When he was cast, it was changed to Will Moreno.
Good's character on "Deception" goes undercover to investigate the death of her best friend, a rich socialite who belongs to one of the country's wealthiest families. They happen to be white.
The family knows Joanne well, because her mother was one of their domestic servants. That might seem racially loaded, given Hollywood's decades of allowing African-Americans on screen only when they were playing servants. But Joanna's mother is given more dignity than those characters, partly because of her impressive title, "head of household." That follows a recent trend of making servants seem more like trusted, essential confidantes, like Samuel L. Jackson's plotting slave in "Django Unchained."
Liz Heldens, the creator of "Deception," said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour Sunday that the show's writers may focus on class differences, but aren't focused on race. (Many will note here that race and class have long been linked in a country built largely on slavery. Others will argue that they are no longer so linked today.)
Heldens hesitated when asked if casting two African-American leads opened the door to a discussion of race on her show.
"I suppose that because of the way it all shook out, it was a way to deal with race without having to actually talk about it," she said. "But it's not something we talk about too much in the writers' room."
One reason few shows are headed by people of color is that networks no longer have white and black shows, like the highly homogenous '80s series "Family Ties" and "227." An almost all-black show, obviously, will tend to have an all-black lead.
And there is no question that people of color have made huge gains behind the camera since the days of "The Cosby Show," perhaps the first show that comes to mind when one thinks of breakthrough shows for prominent, positive portrayals of African-Americans.
Take it from one that show's stars, Phylicia Rashad. In an interview with TheWrap Sunday, she noted that far more people of color are writing, producing and greenlighting shows today.
She also believes in the power of television to change people's longstanding biases.
She said that when she met Nelson Mandela, he told her he used to watch "Cosby" with one of his white jailers.
"It softened him," she recalled Mandela telling her.
Perhaps any residual racism in the U.S. will continue to fade as well, just as opposition to gay marriage has receded as more gays have been positively portrayed on shows like "Modern Family."
But the proof that the real world has caught up with the post-racial one on TV will come when more nonwhite actors get to star, not just play the lead's best friend. NBC, for one, says it is ready.
Network entertainment president Jennifer Salke said Sunday that the network is searching for a multiracial family show led by people of color.
"In family shows based on people’s experiences — and it’s a white couple, and they tend to have white children — you end up having to cast a diverse kind of secondary character to shoehorn in," she said. "I think we would love, and we have some good prospects for this year, to have a 'Cosby,' have a diverse family show where we’re trying to find a role for a white person on it."