Black leads still absent from network dramas
EmptyDramas with single male leads are as popular as ever, but none of the leads went to a black actor this pilot season.
That is not surprising given the fact that there hasn't been a successful drama series with a black lead. There have been a number of attempts through the years, including three with James Earl Jones: "Paris," "Gabriel's Fire" and "Under One Roof." More recently, UPN's "Kevin Hill" and ABC's "Day Break" starred Taye Diggs. USA Network tried a new spin on "Kojak" with Ving Rhames as the lollipop-loving detective, while on the opposite side of the law, Andre Braugher led a crew of criminals on FX's "Thief," for which he won an Emmy. A few years ago, Braugher toplined another critically praised but short-lived series, ABC's medical drama "Gideon's Crossing."
When asked at the Emmys about what he wants to do next, Braugher said, "I want to be on a hit." So far, joining an ensemble cast has proven to be the best way for black actors to get on hit dramas -- almost every big series on the air has a black cast member, including Isaiah Washington on "Grey's Anatomy," Omar Epps on "House" and Gary Dourdan on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Diggs is taking that route this development season as a co-star of the potential "Grey's" spinoff. Rhames also has joined an ensemble cast, that of ABC's pilot "Football Wives."
"There is a feeling that the vast majority of the audience is not black, and having a black lead dominating the show makes most viewers feel shut out since they don't work with an African-American in a dominant position in their daily life," TV historian Tim Brooks says.
It will be interesting to see if Sen. Barack Obama's ascent into the public eye as a strong presidential candidate will change that perception.
One place where blacks are widely accepted in high-ranking positions is the Army, with popular commanders like Gen. Colin Powell. That might have helped CBS' successful military drama "The Unit," whose ensemble cast is led by Dennis Haysbert.
Things are even harder for drama series with all-black casts. CBS was the only broadcast network to attempt that with the short-lived medical drama "City of Angels." Family drama "Soul Food" did well but on a much smaller scale on pay-cable channel Showtime.
David Simon, creator of HBO's acclaimed "The Wire," has acknowledged that having a largely black cast has hindered the urban drama's chances for commercial success. "There is a certain portion of the audience that will change the channel," he said in July. "Not in any grandly venal, racist way, but there are a lot of people that are going to look and see that many black faces looking back at them, and they're going to say, 'This is not my story.' "
Audiences have had no problem embracing comedy series with black leading men, but dramas offer a very different dynamic.
"In comedy, you are laughing with them and at them, it's not something that you relate to," Brooks says. "Most dramas are in some way relatable to your life, whether it is about families or cops, something you see every day."
Ironically, the most-watched miniseries ever is the slavery saga "Roots." But for series, it's about "characters you want in your home on a weekly basis. It's a very intimate casual viewing experience, and you tend not to invite somebody into your home who you wouldn't mix with socially," Brooks says.
It has been a long wait for a hit black-themed drama to hit the air, but another minority group might go there first.
Latinos, who took over blacks as the largest minority in the U.S. in 2003, have a good chance at landing their first drama series on commercial broadcast TV this year with CBS' untitled family drama pilot featuring an predominantly Latino cast, including leading man Jimmy Smits.