More minorities make it to primetime TV

But Hollywood must add depth to minority characters to avoid distortions, actors say.

Mekeisha Madden Toby
Detroit News Television Critic

A Japanese man steals the show as the most endearing and unlikely superhero on one network, while a female African-American attorney cross-examines the stuffing out of a bad guy on another. And wonder of all wonders, a Latino protagonist, also a lawyer, gets to fall for the girl of his dreams on a third.

While none of these scenarios are remarkable in everyday life, they mark a new era of increased diversity on primetime television, where ensemble casts are becoming more and more reflective of the audiences watching them.

Successful series with diversified casts such as ABC's "Lost," which returns tonight for a third season, have spearheaded the movement showing network bigwigs the way to a more inclusive TV world. Because of this show and, some would argue, the reality series "Survivor" on CBS, there is a Japanese hero named Hiro (Masi Oka) on NBC's "Heroes," a complex-but-ambitious-chocolate-hued public defender known as Raina (Sophina Brown) on CBS's "Shark," and Carlos (Jay Hernandez), a Chicano Romeo on ABC's "Six Degrees."

"Because there was a 'Survivor,' there is a 'Lost' and a 'Grey's Anatomy,' " said actor Isaiah Washington, who co-stars on the latter, a hit medical drama on ABC, at the Television Critic Association's press tour in July. "Reality TV shows like that had black, white, tall, short, skinny and fat before we did, and because they did, 'Lost' did, and now we're here."

Tukufu Zuberi is the director of the Africana Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he also is a sociology professor. He agrees with Washington, but is concerned that networks could be slapping people of color in roles without giving them any real cultural depth.

"What happens more often than not is a distortion of African, Asian and Latino American characters on television," Zuberi says. "The key is to teach audiences something about that race and that character from that race that they didn't know or haven't seen. They should have something fresh to offer and not be just a face-of-color with white perspectives."

Actress Sandra Oh ("Sideways"), who works with Washington and plays his love interest Dr. Cristina Yang, says she, like Zuberi, worries that networks are casting by numbers.

"Are they picking the best actors and actresses for the roles or are they saying 'We gotta get a Chinese guy and a black woman to make this show work?' " Oh asked in her trademark droll tone on the set of "Grey's" this past summer.

"Because if that's what the networks are doing, then they might as well keep things lily white because that isn't real diversity. That's filling a quota, and everybody knows the black man is the first one to die in the movie anyway."

Washington, known to "Grey's" fans as Dr. Preston Burke, says he is all too familiar with the lack of stories from the black, brown and yellow communities on the big and small screens. He is also aware of typecasting and says he will never again play a criminal. The next step he says is to get behind the camera and diversify the production world.

"Five years ago, I was in an HBO movie called 'Dancing in September' and I played a network exec," Washington recalls. "Nobody wants to be the token or sell out and I think with our show and others like it, things have gotten better.

"We just have to keep moving in that direction."

This season, Esai Morales ("NYPD Blue" and "La Bamba") is FBI supervisor Kyle Tyner on Fox's mystery drama, "Vanished." Morales also is the co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and says it isn't enough to get the part. He also has represented his race in his role.

"I have to make sure the character is done well and credibly," Morales said at the TCAs. "I've seen a lot of people of color plastered on shows but they didn't bring anything to the role.

"If you play a position of authority, be like Dennis Haysbert," he explained. Haysbert, currently playing another authoritative role on CBS's "The Unit," brought such gravitas to Fox's "24" that no one questioned a black man playing president. "Anything less than that isn't credible."

Wentworth Miller, who portrays a family-centric fugitive on Fox's "Prison Break," knows how important it is to bring color to a cast. Miller is of African, Jamaican, English and German descent on his father's side, and of Russian, French, Dutch, Syrian and Lebanese descent on his mother's side.

He says he hopes this culturally enriched casting trend sticks around.

"I grew up not seeing people like myself on screen," he said during the TCAs. "It's important in an age where role models are so few and far between to have various people you can identify with in an easy way such as race or religion."