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The Best of Black Television in 2014

The Best of Black Television in 2014

For the first television season in a long time
a lot of hubbub has been made about diversity on television, primarily on the
major networks. While there has been a greater emergence of one or two Black
characters on various shows over the past few years – in some cases token
characters, but most often not really – the major difference for the new
2014-15 television season is that many of the hyped shows are headlined by very
recognizable Black talent and in a few cases also produced and created by Black
talent.  There is another
difference – a lot of them are really good!

So for the end of the year, here is an
assessment of these banner shows. Included is a focus on Latino-helmed shows,
as well as other programs with standout Black talent making a significant
impact on TV viewing.  If you have
not seen them, catch up on them during the holidays and watch the new episodes
come next year. 

There are some SPOILERS abound, so be careful
what you read.

“Black-ish”

The most controversial of the list is easily “Black-ish.” Why? Well, come to find for
no real reason at all. But we shall review some history behind the show for the
sake of clarity. Once the advertisements for the show began to appear so did an
instant and undeserved divisiveness over it. Some audiences were confused what
the name even meant (not black enough vs. black $#*% vs. huh?), while others
knew flat out did not want any airing out of Black/African-American issues on
major television. Then there were the audiences who were upset to have a show
with ‘Black’ so prominent in the title.

Nonetheless, the Anthony Anderson starring showing about a father who is concerned
about his four children maintaining their would-be proud Black culture while
living in a mostly White suburb premiered with high ratings and maintained such
a comfortable place there too a full season was quickly ordered. While the
pilot had its share of critics, by episode five, in which the youngest son is
primed to get a spanking, the majority of the audience that did not find the
show amusing got won over.

And how could they not?  With Tracee Ellis Ross’ return to a major comedy since Girlfriends as wife Rainbow, powerhouse Laurence Fishburne as Dre’s highly
critical father, and four very talented young actors as the kids, including Marcus Scribner as the geeky and always
befuddled Andre Jr., Yara Shahadi,
graduated from syndicated sitcom The
First Family into a major one as pretty girl Zoey, and cuties (but not
overly precocious) Marsai Martin and
Miles Brown as Diane and Jack, the Kenya Barris created comedy was primed
to succeed regardless of unwarranted comparisons to The Cosby Show.  Personally, I had more faith in Barris’ and Anderson’s talent
more than anything, and was happy to confirm that my pre-viewing thoughts on
the show were surpassed.

That is not to say that room for improvement
does not exist.  Dre is not as
boorish as some professional critics and audience members would contend, but he
can be a bit too manchild-like at times. But then what comedy TV dad in this
era is not?  (Go through the list
in your head right now…see?).  That
is not an excuse, yet Anderson’s Dre is very proactive at being a good father
and is not afraid of defining himself as straight up Black, which should not be
an issue to many people but ultimately is.  

“Black-ish” airs on Wednesdays at
9:30 EST on ABC.

“How To Get Away With Murder”

Thursday nights on ABC is Shonda time and
everyone knows it!  Yes Shonda
Rhimes, the woman behind long-standing medical drama Grey’s Anatomy and Black-Twitter
phenomenon (among other audiences) Scandal
has provided audiences with another soap-y type hit with the legal drama “How To Get Away With Murder.”  Yet beyond Shonda and the fantastic
title is the leading actress of the show, Viola
Davis.  Her lack of tangible
leading roles in Hollywood, despite being nominated for numerous awards, led
her back to television where she could be centerpiece character Annaliese
Keating, a top criminal defense lawyer and law professor who at fictional
Philadelphia-based Middleton University teaches Law 101 aka “How To Get Away
With Murder.”

Davis’ Annaliese Keating is shrouded in
mystery, with her legal brilliance often getting overshadowed by personal
issues with her cheating husband (Tom Verica) and cop boyfriend (Billy Brown), allowing her presence on
screen to be extreme yet believable – including when she wowed audiences
(especially Black female ones) in private scenes sans makeup and her
straight-hair wig to reveal her natural hairdo. Its personal touches like this
that make me favor the show over the often-ridiculous “Scandal.”  Davis has
come a long way since her first foray into regular series television, the CBS
medical drama “City of Angels” (2000),
where she showed major chops as nurse Lynnette Peeler, a then virtually unknown
standout amongst the great cast of Blair Underwood, Michael Warren, and Hill
Harper.  

But beyond Viola there is more. The suspense of
the show is enhanced through the eyes of her five ambitious law students, who become
entangled in an intense murder plot that from episode one is obvious to affect
the way they operate in Annaliese’s
world. The standout among the students is the show’s unofficial second lead, Alfred Enoch, as the wide-eyed POV
character Wes Gibbens.  Enoch, best
known as Dean Thomas (aka, the Black kid) from the Harry Potter movies, plays
Wes as the guy who sees it all but does not reveal it all, so a lot smarter and
duplicitous than he appears.  This
is most especially in his defense of eventual girlfriend Rebecca (Katie
Findlay) who becomes a major suspect in the show’s central murder mystery.  Aja
Naomi King, known best as Wendell Pierce’s daughter Abigayle in Joshua
Sanchez’ 2012/3 independent film Four
(reviewed heavily on S&A) and as manipulative doctor Cassandra Koppelson in
the underrated and quickly cancelled 2012 medical drama “Emily Owens M.D.” (mentioned often in my past column ‘This Week in
Black Television’) plays stuck-up law student Michaela Pratt (King’s characters
always have such cool names). As ambitious as she is intelligent, she gets
taken out a peg in episode eight by her would-be mother-in-lay played by the
illustrious Lynn Whitfield in one of the series strongest episode, directed by
co-diva Debbie Allen. 

Because of Viola Davis’ movie career the show is only 15
episodes. This is a good thing, as the action ramps up quickly and the murder
mysteries will hopefully come to a conclusive end. The secondary one, revealed
in episode nine’s mid-winter break, already has. 

“How To
Get Away With Murder” airs on Thursdays at 10pm EST on ABC.

Click over to the next page for the rest…

“The Flash”

When executive producers Greg Berlanti and
Andrew Kreisberg adapted the DC Comics character “The Flash” for network television, they made more than a few
changes. Chief among those was in the race of classic character, The Flash’s
love interest Iris West (whom in the classic version of the books he eventually
marries), who is now African-American instead of White, and her father, police
detective Joe West, a new character.

While there was some controversy to this, it
was not as pronounced as with Idris Elba as Heimdall in the “Thor” movies (that may be perhaps because
his character is labeled as a ‘god’), as, I surmise, most fanboys were
concentrating on how well The Flash, who can run faster than lightning can
strike, would be best portrayed. 
Still, I also surmise it may be a likability factor as Joe West is being
portrayed by actor Jesse L. Martin,
known best as playing another cop, the sensitive yet stern Det. Ed Green for
nine seasons on NBC’s “Law & Order,” one of primetime television’s most beloved shows.

Whatever the reason, in an unusual season of
great new television shows, The Flash quickly raced into (get it?) one of the
top ten.  While much credit should
be given to title character The Flash/Barry Allen, played with wonderment and
angst by Grant Gustin, even the hardest of heart cannot deny that Martin’s
portrayal of Joe West, who raised Barry after his mother was murdered by a
mysterious blur but blamed on Barry’s father, is the heart of the show.  Week after week he shows a compassion,
firmness, and awe that we all wish our father’s would show us week after week,
and it is not just reflected in the dialogue but his smile, his grin, his
frown, and persona.  I feel
confident that the relatively young cast is getting lessons in Acting 201 by
the master thespian that Martin understatedly is… I know they are.

And it seems this is most reflected, quite
naturally, in Gustin and co-star Candice
Patton who plays Iris.  Patton
has truly grown into a role she seemed reluctant to take seriously at
first.  No longer just eye candy,
Patton as Iris is steadily becoming a stronger actor week after week, a
progress that serialized formats, much likes the stage, allow.

“The Flash” airs on Tuesdays at 8pm
EST on The CW.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”

Forging strongly ahead into its sophomore
season, the Andy Samberg led police precinct comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” remains one of the funniest shows on network
television.  While much credit is
due to its star, the antics of Samberg’s character Det. Jake Peralta would get
tired very quickly without his supporting cast. This is truest in co-star, the
great Andre Braugher. As Captain Ray
Holt, Braugher’s deadpan delivery and staid attempts at jokes often provide the
funniest scenes, especially in opposition to Peralta’s immaturity or the
sycophancy of Det. Amy Santiago, played by the surprisingly comedic Melissa Fumero. Especially hilarious
are his flashbacks to the 1980’s with his thick mustache and half-fro.

Though I have not seen it said, Braugher’s
delivery plays against, but at the same time alongside, the sober Black TV and
film captains, sergeants, etc that antecede his character.  In classic cops shows like “Starksy and Hutch” with Bernie Hamilton
as Capt. Dobey, and in contemporary ones like Castle with Captain Victoria Gates played by Penny Johnson-Jerald (Ruben
Santiago-Hudson preceded her as captain), talented actors such as these have
gone wasted in token roles of police authority figures that do not add anything
to the story and simply state the obvious or yell at the outlaw cops for
insubordination week after week. That is not to say that every Black TV
‘captain’ is the same, as S. Epatha Merkerson’s Lt. Anita Van Buren on “Law & Order” and Yaphet Kotto’s Lt.
Giardello on “Homicide: Life on the Street”
(the show where Braugher really became famous) are ample proof of.  But others on shows like “Matt Houston” (Lincoln Kilpatrick), “The Mentalist” (Aunjanue Ellis), or films
like “Beverly Hills Cop” (Gilbert R.
Hill) fit the bill. Captain Holt is seldom obvious, though he is the often the
voice of reason and the sanest character in the zany 99th Precinct. 

Terry
Crews
is an unexpected asset to the show as well. As the other least zany character
and authority figure, Sgt. Terry Jeffords, he is often affable yet stern. While
the comedy that centers around him is usually easy humor about his huge muscles
and large size, it is sometimes the opposition to that – as expressed in the
recent Thanksgiving episode when his even larger brother-in-law makes fun of
him for being a little guy – when it is used most effectively. 

“Brooklyn
Nine-Nine” airs
on Sundays at 8:30pm EST (sometimes later due to football) on Fox

 

“Sleepy Hollow”

Resisting the above-mentioned obvious Black
police authority figure on TV is Orlando
Jones as Capt. Frank Irving in the surprise-hit show “Sleepy Hollow” (though
ratings are much lower this season than the first).  While Irving did spend most of Season 2 in an insane asylum,
he did escape in time for #SPOILER WARNING the big battle with Moloch
and his horseman of the apocalypse in which he heroically fought and won a
really cool sword fight scene but ultimately lost his life. 

Meanwhile Nicole
Beharie further proves her resilience as an actress in the starring role of
Lt. Abbie Mills, a woman pre-ordained to fight against the coming apocalypse
alongside her fellow apocalypse witness Ichabod Crane (the brilliant Tom Mison),
a resurrected Revolutionary War soldier/spy inspired by the classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” story.  Unlike what I stated in the previews
for the first season the show, Abbie does not portray a corny and tired tough
cop persona but a strong, confident person, often scared by what she has to do
yet moreso determined to do it right. 

This is best seen in “Mama,” episode 9 for this
season.  Here, a series of mysterious suicides
at Tarrytown Psych, where Irving is being held, leads Abbie and Ichabod to
discover that an especially surprising spirit is involved – Abbie’s mother
Lori.  Played by the grossly
underrated Aunjanue Ellis (Ray, the
upcoming “The Book of Negroes”), Lori
was a patient at the psych hospital due to her fear of demons harming her and
her children, which she happened to be correct about; 15 years to this date,
Lori killed herself. Abbie, along with her sister Jenny (Lyndie Greenwood, made a regular cast member this season but more
underutilized than in the first season), a previous inmate at the hospital due
to her being unable to cope with seeing said demons as a child, go to
investigate.  A bit of a primer is
needed here: Abbie saw the demons as well, but lied that he never had, causing
friction between the sisters for over a decade. 

The episode is very much worth watching so I will
not reveal every aspect, but just understand that Lori ends up not being as
crazy as she seems and there is a tender moment between the mother and
daughters at the end where she helps them with information regarding the battle
against big bad Moloch. 

I am a bit frightened that due to lower ratings this
season (down from -36.96% last year) that “Sleepy
Hollow” may be cancelled after this season. I still wish the Fox Network
kept it at 13 episodes like last year instead of extending it to 15, which
forced the writers to keep the storylines tighter. Going up against “The Voice,” “Dancing with the Stars,” and “Scorpion,”
seems to be highly affecting its ratings this year as well. Losing such a great
show with standout Black talent would be a shame, so try to support it. 

“Sleepy
Hollow” airs
on Mondays at 9pm EST on Fox

 

“Jane The Virgin”

I am on record as touting Gina Rodriguez as the new it-girl for close to a year now, and with
her starring as the title character on “Jane
The Virgin,” this now-fact is solidified. 

A drama wrapped in a telenovela (it is actually
based on one) wrapped in a comedy, “Jane”
is about a young,
devout woman who discovers that she has become accidentally artificially
inseminated with the sperm of a man she’s had a crush on for years. While she
struggles with promising the baby to crush Rafael, played by hunky Justin
Baldoni, and his estranged and manipulative wife Petra, complicating matters
even further is her now-strained relationship with cop fiancé Michael and the
fact that he knows Petra is up to no good but does not want Jane to keep the
baby either. 

The overriding theme of the show is the fluidity of
family, what makes one strong and what can easily weaken it. Jane is still a
virgin due to her grandmother instilling virtue in her after her mother Xiomara
had Jane out of wedlock with an unknown soldier. But Xo, played with an
unconventional mix of humor, sexiness, and sensitivity by Andrea Novedo (“How to Make It In America”), actually had
Jane with her high school boyfriend (the over-the-top Jaime Camil), who now
stars on everyone’s favorite telenovela and wants to get to know his daughter.
And believe it or not, there is even more to add to the confusion, including a
murder mystery.

Despite the heavy soapy elements, the somewhat
tongue-in-cheek nature of the show makes it all work based on the strength of
show lead Gina Rodriguez. You may have first seen her in “Filly Brown,” or much earlier in the Randy Wilkins short film Osvaldo’s, or more recently in “Sleeping with the Fishes.” Smart, goofy,
insightful and adorable, Rodriguez has the talent and timing of Lucille Ball
and the toughness of a Lauren Bacall. 
Regardless of whether the show lasts or not (I hope it does!) you will
see a lot more from her. 

“Jane the Virgin” airs
on Mondays at 9pm EST on The CW

“Orange Is The New
Black”

While I think most of us can agree that “Orange
Is The New Black” was not as good in its second season as the first, I feel we
can agree that less of Piper (Taylor Schilling), and more rounding out of other
cast mate stories like Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Red
(Kate Mulgrew), Gloria (Selenis Leyva), and especially Poussey (the
increasingly popular Samira Wiley) 
made the show more endearing to audiences.  I know it worked on me. 

And while her character was controversial, Lorraine Toussaint as new troublemaker
character Vee was totally needed. She indeed made the actions of the young
Black female inmate characters more notorious, but that also made the jail life
much less fun n’ games and a lot more serious – though this is essentially a
comedy with added drama. Nonetheless, it was especially veteran actress
Toussaint battling equal vet Mulgrew that made some of the most intense scenes
in Season 2. Add to that a shocking nude scene by Toussaint that all together
sparks one of the top ten actor performances in TV this year. Take that “True Detective!”

Honorable
Mentions

“Gotham”

Jada Pinkett-Smith is way over-the-top as crime
boss Fish Mooney, and we all love it! 
Gotham on a whole took some
time to get stabilized, but is now required viewing.   

“Cristela”

Cristela Alonzo, the comedian/actress and her show,
are adorably funny.  The show is no
game-changer, but its worth a guffaw or three, especially so early on a Friday
night – or even moreso on Hulu Plus days later.

“The Knick”

Surprisingly good, if you are a sucker for
period pieces this is the show for you. Filmed beautifully, no doubt from
aesthetic influence from executive producer Steven Soderbergh, the acting from
show lead Clive Owen (whose acting career began heavily in TV) as the brilliant
yet a-hole and heroin-addicted surgeon John Thackery, is superb. But we
expected all that already. 

Even better (yes, better!) is André Holland as upstart Dr.
Algernon Edwards, whose hiring stirs up contention at the hospital due to his
being a Black man (suffice it to say, a plethora of demeaning names are used to
describe him, as you can imagine) and better doctor than most of the other
surgeons.  Holland, last seen in 42 and the disappointing NBC comedy “1600 Penn” (which he was a bright spot
in) has great potential as a future star as we see his determination to excel
in the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital not by playing an Uncle Tom or someone
over-eager, but a man of his own making. 

“Doctor Who” (season 8)

The new season and new Doctor also brought
along the addition of Danny Pink, the new boyfriend of the Doctor’s companion
Clara Oswald. A former soldier and now school teach in Calra’s Coal Hill
School, the mysterious Danny as played by Samuel
Anderson quickly became a loving fixture on the show until…well, see for
yourself. His best episodes include his intro, “Into the Dalek,” “Listen,” and “In the Forest of the Night.” I was hoping that one of Clara’s students, mean
girl Courtney Woods (Ellis George)
would be a new Companion for the Doctor alongside Clara, especially with her
early presence in the first half of the season and especially in episode 7 “Kill the Moon.” However, it does not seem this will be a reality. 

“Broad City” 

Despite his whole contention with Bill Cosby
that unraveled a hornet’s nest of controversy, on an already funny show it is
comedian Hannibal Burress and his laid-back humor that makes this Comedy
Central program one of the best debuts of the year.  You can catch up on all episodes on Hulu Plus and also catch
Buress and wild man Eric Andre and The
Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim. 

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