Let's get something out of the way. I'm a white woman, and I grew up in a predominantly white suburban setting. I have a lot of privilege, and pretty homogenous surroundings, to this day. And I confess that I'm not racist (read: a lot less racist and a lot more aware) thanks in no small part to the fact that as a child I saw faces that didn't look like mine on TV. I was fortunate to also be raised in a house where intellectual curiosity was rewarded and cultural diversity was sought out, but given the fact that maybe 15% of my school's population wasn't white and in a socioeconomic class nearly identical to mine, without TV the greatest diversity I would have gotten exposed to on a regular basis was the fact that my hometown has a pretty sizeable population of Jewish people.
I remember, distinctly, watching the Cosby Show. I remember watching Family Matters, and later, when my TV watching wasn't quite as closely monitored by my parents, Living Single and Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I remember A Different World and I even remember Hangin' with Mr Cooper (someone please tell me I am not the only one that remembers Mr Cooper). I remember seeing faces that looked nothing like mine, and not remotely feeling as if that was strange. These were members of the now-disappearing black middle class, with jobs like my parents and schoolmates' parents had. These were people who had the same concerns and problems that I had, even though didn't look like me, and it felt remarkably unremarkable.
While some people are celebrating the rise of "bespoke television," I have never been more concerned about the state of the medium. If you click through to the (very well written) Vulture article, you'll see three images, collages with actors from some of today's more popular and critically acclaimed shows. Out of twenty one photographs of nineteen actors (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are inexplicably used twice), only two are people of color, and they're both women from Orange is the New Black. Bespoke TV might make for better written and more nuanced TV than we've ever had before, but it certainly doesn't buy us a lot of diversity.
From 1997 to 2001, the number of black sitcoms on US television declined from 15 to 6 as white viewership declined,and that decline has generally continued. If I'm the only one that's alarmed by that, let me know and I'll shut up. But even a cursory glance at what's on TV these days reveals a startling dearth of non-white middle class families in shows. Broadcast TV offers us Olivia Pope in Scandal, hardly an attainable lifestyle for most people of any ethnicity and I'm not sure if you could even loosely call the rest of the characters her family. If you're willing to wander over to basic cable, we've got Are We There Yet? and a couple of Tyler Perry shows, all of which originally aired on TBS and only one of which is still being produced: For Better or Worse is now on Oprah's OWN network. If you want to a cast of faces that aren't white, by and large we're talking reruns, BET, or the Real Housewives of Atlanta.
(Not that there's anything wrong with the the options that exist. Just that there should be more options.)
That's part of the reason I was so excited about Sleepy Hollow, and still am. Three of the main characters are African American, all of them ostensibly middle class. Even better, all three get to, on a really regular basis, school the white male character that you might expect to be the savior. Sure, Crane is pretty badass and does cool things, but he's a literal babe in the woods when it comes to functioning in modern society and the mystical hinterlands that their adventures take them to; between Abbie and his wife Katrina, he is often turning to a woman for guidance if not orders. Plus, listening to a black man and a black woman explain Sally Hemings to a man who worships Jefferson is just a thing of damned beauty.
But one or two diverse shows (I'll get to Brooklyn 99, promise) does not mean that we are in a golden age of diverse television. Sleepy Hollow is also one of the few shows on TV right now to feature a recurring Asian character, in the form of John Cho's excellent and criminally under-used Andy Brooks. Hawaii Five-0 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually have the most Asian or part-Asian regular cast members on network TV right now at five and three respectively; the former includes not only Daniel Dae Kim aka the only person on Lost that never made me throw anything at the TV but also my personal crush since the summer of 2001, Mark Dacascos. Feel free to abandon me at this point in favor of going and reading up on the Chairman, I totally understand. (His interview with Alton Brown is especially great.)
If you told me that one point in the 2000s John and Kate Plus Eight had more Asian people on it than any other shows on television, I would only respond with "You mean any other shows on television combined, right?"
Sure, there's plans for Far East Orlando based on Eddie Huang's Fresh Off the Boat (no problems with that show's title, nope, and it looks like the show might be in trouble regardless), but in the past few months three high-profile Asian actresses have either left or been cut out of their shows. And if you want to see an entire Asian family? Once again, we have to visit basic cable and go to TBS's Sullivan & Son. As hard as it is to talk about the decline of the "black sitcom," there isn't even such a thing as an "Asian sitcom" according to the internet; at least, there hasn't been since Margaret Cho's All-American Girl in 1994. The only show on network TV that's led by an Asian actor, Mindy, has notorious issues with race and ethnicity that are nuanced, and I will let far smarter people than I tackle the subject.
I'm almost a thousand words into this and I haven't even touched on the fact that apparently there's only one show currently on network TV that features predominantly Latino actors: Devious Maids. There was another, which was basically Rob Schneider in My Big Crazy Latino Family Let's All Laugh at My In-Laws' Accents BTW I'm Also OCD isn't Mental Health Funny but it didn't get renewed after it's 2012 run. (I spent fifteen minutes of my life reading about that show without gouging my eyes out, guys. You owe me.) The last time there was a Latino family on television, it was Ugly Betty. I wanted to find a way to include Wizards of Waverly Place on here but I don't want you guys to judge me so soon after I struggled through ¡Rob!
ETA: LeChatGris rightly pointed out that I didn't mention Native American and indigenous groups at all. It looks like I had a paragraph that got Kinja'd, because the same criticisms can be leveled at shows like Longmire and countless "historical genre" pieces like Into the West, Lone Dove, and Hell on Wheels.
The only place that we seem to have any diversity at all is within the context of larger, generally white, casts. Brooklyn 99 is, as Peralta himself put it a "weird family, with two black dads, two Latina daughters, two white sons, Gina, and Scully as some sort of weird giant baby." But Peralta is still inarguably the main character of that show, and his successes (or failures) are the focus far more than even that very diverse and well balanced cast is. Plus, again, no Asian actors, and I'm still a bit uncomfortable with the "old white guy as buffoon" as a take on the classic bumbling dad trope. Parks and Recreation has two fabulous assets in Aziz Ansari and Retta, but no one can deny that Tom and Donna are not the central characters to Pawnee's story, for all that they both often steal the scenes that they're in. The same can absolutely be said of Shirley on Community, and could be said of Troy until Donald Glover left the show; Danny Pudi and Ken Jeong are two of the few Asian actors with regular work on network TV, and Abed is the rare example of a character of color getting equal or nearly equal screentime to his white counterparts. One has to wonder, though, if it weren't for how heavily the show relies on his "quirkiness" to move plots forward, would he still get that much? The default example of diversity on television (which isn't even on television), Orange is the New Black, certainly isn't free of criticism.
This isn't good enough.
I want Clair Huxtable. I want Lori Beth Denberg and the cast of All That. I want Uncle Phil. I want to see people on TV that don't look at all like me but worry about the same things. I don't want to be able to count the people of color in a cast on one or two fingers, let alone one hand (what's up Big Bang Theory, Once Upon a Time, Suits, and Elementary) I don't want to wonder if the show I'm watching is going to keep killing off the few not-white and/or female characters it has (I'm looking at you, the Following and you, Hannibal, with a lot of side eye at Supernatural and Teen Wolf). I don't want to have to wish that the white girl in the room wasn't actually the star of the show so I could see more of her not-white sidekicks (hey, OitNB and New Girl). I don't want to have to watch Glee in order to see a cast that almost reflects the actual population of the country I live in. I want the diversity of gender and body type and skin color that I saw in cartoons like Recess and Hey Arnold.
I want to see all of the nuances of the world around me reflected on TV. I want to see minority families on television again, not just individual cast members. I want to know that there are kids growing up in my hometown that are learning the same things I learned at from Carl Winslow and Vanessa Huxtable and Carlton Banks: that I am not alone in the world, and that the people that look like me are not the only ones that are like me.
But let's be honest. Mostly I just want Clair Huxtable.