Part of what makes television so beloved is its familiarity. Until the last 20 years or so, shows more or less thrived on repetition. To a great extent, that precept is still 100% true: Large numbers of people watch shows precisely because they know precisely what they are going to get. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with that…unless that’s all you watch. Then? It’s a problem.
It’s a problem for a reason that last night’s episode of “Fresh Off The Boat” simply stated. Louis answers Jessica’s confusion as to why so many of their friends/employees help them celebrate Chinese New Year in Orlando by saying, “It’s not that people didn’t care enough to get it right. It’s that they didn’t know.” There’s nothing particularly artful about that sentiment, and yet that makes it all the more powerful. It cuts to the chase and gets to the heart of why diversity on television isn’t just nice to have in the era of Peak TV, but necessary.
Largely lost in in this era is that while there are more shows than ever, there really isn’t a huge standard deviation in the TYPES of shows and the TYPES of characters depicting within them. Look at the “indie” comedy of IFC, which I like, but also feels like it comes from the same pool of comedians all with the same perspectives and yes, mostly the same skin color. It’s not that these similar shows don’t have a right to exist. Not by any stretch! But there’s a missed opportunity for different types of indie comedy that don’t spring from the same systems that feed “Saturday Night Live” and the dozens of podcasts that seemingly have the same 15 people in rotation.
I like these shows. I like these podcasts. It’s just that I don’t know what else there is.
When I come across a show that works in familiar beats, I still find plenty of pleasure when the program is well-executed. But it doesn’t come close to the pure thrill of discovery when a TV show casually reveals an entire voice, point of view, culture, and/or world that I simply didn’t know anything about. And it’s not that these views are impenetrable or difficult to understand: They have been there all along, operating on a frequency just above or below my normal point of view. What these shows optimally do is making me look at something familiar and see it anew from this new perspective.
A show “Master Of None” didn’t break any particularly new ground: It featured a central character that was an aimless, wanna-be actor with a confused approach towards relationships. That sounds super boring and super trite. But with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang steering the ship, everything was put through the prism of the Indian- and Asian-American experience. This simple shift made previously rote topics completely fresh again. That doesn’t mean every subsequent show about Indian-Americans would be inherently interesting and mindblowing. It does mean that two writers who don’t normally get to convey their everyday experiences have the chance to bring something new to the table.
In short: I like this show. And I didn’t know I needed it.
Then again, where’s the “subsequent” show of this type to even test my hypothesis? It can’t be that there aren’t enough outlets to air it. The proliferation of cable channels and online streaming venues means that there’s no longer a limitation based on basic networks and a three-hour-a-night window. Nor should there even be a burden for the next show to be as great as “Master Of None.” Indeed, oddly enough, “success” in this arena means that dozens of cultures, sexualities, and other denominations all have the right to have a host of truly mediocre shows depicting their viewpoints. Shitty sitcoms should not be the sole privilege of straight white Americans, damnit!
A great deal of why there are so many great shows is that…there are just so many shows. There’s a law of averages here that isn’t completely coincidental: While there are hundreds of talented people making television, there’s no guarantee that any of the shows they make will be any good. For every “The West Wing” there’s a “Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip”: Even when everything is seemingly lined up for greatness, total and utter crap can unfold. It’s a feature, not a bug, of anything creative: The lack of certainty means that just about everything is a crapshoot. If we could actually predict what will work, none of this would be much fun.
And yet, for those signing the checks, it makes sense to stay more or less within the same lanes. It’s easy for me, O Simple Humble Viewer, to tell studios to greenlight a show that looks like nothing else that’s ever been seen before. On top of that, my naïve self imagines that many of those suits approving a pilot for a “Modern Family” clone would KILL for said, mystical, magical original idea. I’m not so cynical as to think that everyone I don’t see onscreen has a desire to make the most mundane programming possible. There are enough soul-sucking industries in the world, and while I’m a dour sonofabitch, even I can’t subscribe to a Hollywood as uniformly dark as that seen in “The Player” or “UNReal.”
What makes “Master Of None” and “Fresh Off The Boat” (yes, I’m finally returning to it) so fantastic is that both demonstrate how one can essentially stay in the same lane and yet make that lane wider than previously conceived. “Boat” completely utter fits into the ABC comedy lineup, itself a quietly brave consortium of those aforementioned “Modern Family” clones that nevertheless examine classes, religions, and ethnicities that make each unique unto themselves yet part of a larger tapestry. These shows impart lessons without being didactic but simply by presenting a world slightly unfamiliar to those watching them. The Chinese New Year party itself is a microcosm for the delight that come from experiencing something new. (And to its credit, the episode also took that sweet sentiment and turned it sarcastic when all the well-meaning inquiries into Chinese culture soon bored Jessica to tears.)
Shows that feature non-Caucasian, gay, and transgender characters need not be overtly political at this point, because the sad fact is any show at this point in time that exists with these types of people at the center are political simply for their very existence. A show like “Empire” can’t just be a wildly entertaining, wildly erratic primetime soap. It’s imbued with larger cultural meaning due to the composition of its cast, writing staff, and incredibly huge audience. It’s simultaneously a compliment that “Empire” can bear so much scrutiny, but the paucity of similar shows means that it has to be a lot more to a lot more people than perhaps any one show can bear.
The real revolution from Peak TV won’t just come from Cookie dancing in a gorilla suit, but also from quiet moments like those on “Boat” last night. Television is best when viewed from afar, as the very lives, tones, and perspectives depicted meld into a kaleidoscope that refracts and reflects our own view of the world. Sometimes you need to have new perspectives shoved into plain sight. Other times, it’s best to have them happen so subtly you don’t even consciously absorb them. It’s not just that the Huangs felt good for being accepted. It’s that everyone else in that restaurant felt good for being enriched.
This isn’t about patting ourselves on the back for being open and tolerant. It’s about shutting up for two seconds and realizing that no one knows everything, and that maybe, just maybe, someone else has something to contribute to the conversation as well. The familiar is fine. The unfamiliar is important, and transforming the latter into the former is the only way any of us get any better at being ourselves. “Fresh Off The Boat” is a very simple, silly sitcom. But it’s also a vital part of what I love about the medium and pop culture in general. Every once in a while, a show, movie, or song will upend what I know and demonstrate how much I don’t.
That used to scare me. Now? It thrills me.