Australia’s free-to-air channels may be sadly lacking when it comes to producing home-made series that depict characters from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds (or even airing overseas shows that do so in a decent timeslot).
But if it’s diversity on TV you were looking for in 2015, these were, in no particular order, the best shows on offer – if you knew where to look for them, that is.
One of the strongest local dramas this year, The Principal’s four episodes aired on SBS across two weeks in October – packing a powerful punch and leaving viewers (well, this viewer at any rate) wanting more. Set in Boxdale Boys High School (which was basically just a fictional version of Punchbowl Boys High), the miniseries featured large numbers of Muslim and Pacific Islander characters as it depicted the multicultural melting pot that is Sydney’s south west. Although a murder mystery at its core, The Principal went far beyond being just another whodunit, weaving cultural clashes and community concerns into its storytelling.
Orange Is the New Black
As it entered its third season on Netflix and Foxtel, the prison dramedy became less about WASP inmate Piper (Taylor Schilling) and more concerned with the diverse range of women she’s incarcerated alongside. Whites, blacks, Latinas, Asians… even a Russian cook with bright red hair. A more motley group of female characters is not to be found anywhere on TV, especially when you also factor in differences in size, shape, sexuality and state of mind. And with each episode featuring the backstory of a different character, you never quite know where you'll be taken next.
Fresh Off the Boat
Just as ’00s sitcom Everybody Hates Chris had related the experience of an African-American kid growing up in Brooklyn in the ’80s (based on the childhood of stand-up Chris Rock), ’10s comedy Fresh Off the Boat does the same for an Asian-American teenager in Miami in the ’90s (using the book of the same name by chef Eddie Huang as source material). The first US series to be focussed on an Asian family in two decades, Fresh Off the Boat airs on FOX8 locally and features a stand-out performance from Constance Wu as tough love mum (and occasional karaoke hog) Jessica.
For fans of country and western, there’s Nashville but if hip-hop and R&B is more your jam then soap Empire should be music to your ears. Or eyes. Or something. Too sudsy for Australian primetime, the series about the Lyon family and their music industry empire wound up on second-string channel Eleven. But in the US, the drama has become a genuine cultural phenomenon that, in the same way as the musical genres it depicts, has transcended its African-American roots.
How to Get Away With Murder
There’s no discrimination when it comes to this latest success story from executive producer Shonda Rhimes – all the characters are fairly awful and about 75 percent of them have either committed murder or assisted in its execution. The main storyline of the current season, which airs late at night on Channel 7, centres on two clients (one Asian, one African-American) who may or may not have murdered their adoptive parents. Representing them is powerhouse attorney Annalise Keating (played by Emmy winner Viola Davis, who’s not afraid to go wig-free in her portrayal) and her multicultural team of law students.
Not all diversity on TV is viewed positively, of course. Take Homeland. Despite some narrative missteps (usually concerning the show’s very own Kim Bauer, Dana Brody) over its five seasons, the multiple award-winning series continues to be well made and thought-provoking. But its depiction of characters from the Middle East has come under fire, with accusations of racism and, specifically, Islamaphobia directed at the Channel 10 drama.
Jane the Virgin
Another show recently involved in accusations of racism is this FOX8 comedy. The series wasn’t criticised itself, but instead it was the Golden Globes, who – during their own nominations announcement – twice confused Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez with America Ferrara, the former star of Ugly Betty. Like Ugly Betty, Jane the Virgin is adapted from a Latin telenovela – but its storyline of a young woman who is accidentally artificially inseminated is one of a kind.
The critically revered ABC series not only featured a largely Indigenous cast, but the project – which concluded with this year’s telemovie Promise Me – was brought to the screen by Indigenous writers, directors and producers. Over its three instalments (Promise Me and two previous six-episode seasons) Redfern Now gave a voice and visibility to Australian performers who don’t often receive such exposure on our screens – and viewers were rewarded with gripping, compelling drama.
The Walking Dead / Fear the Walking Dead
Both the original FX post-apocalypse series and its spin-off prequel prove that once the dead start to rise, it doesn’t matter what you look like, we’re all screwed. And while in The Walking Dead, African-American males seem to have had a higher than average mortality rate (not to mention being less defined as characters), both series feature lead characters from a range of cultural backgrounds and gruesome deaths across the board.
Master of None
He was one of three regular cast members who prevented Parks & Recreation being a white-fest, and Aziz Ansari is tackling diversity on television head-on in his new Netflix comedy, with an entire episode, “Indians on TV”, dedicated to the topic. And while the series as a whole, which co-stars Asian-American actor Kelvin Yu as the best friend of Ansari’s character, might be still finding its feet, its commentary on matters of race is right on the money.
You may scoff at the inclusion of this British institution, which airs locally on UKTV. But consider how our local soaps approach diversity. Neighbours lumped all its minorities into one gay, Indigenous character who suffers PTSD. Home and Away has Ada Nicodemou. (OK, and Tai Hara.) In EastEnders, numerous black and white characters rub shoulders (and occasionally more), while there was also recently a Muslim wedding in the fictional neighbourhood of Albert Square. And as soaps go, it’s among the best in the world.
It doesn’t get more diverse than this. Multiculturalism is built into this Netflix series about eight “sensates” from all over the world who discover they share a mental link. With characters from as far afield as Kenya, Germany, Korea, India and Mexico, Sense8 really did bring the world together – especially when the sensates all got busy with each other.
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