We watch... so you don't have to.

Diversity Ed-ucation

Two items that crossed my desk here at TeeVee HQ got me thinking about the importance of "diversity" in casting TV shows. This all came up because of the apparent cancellation of Ed, a show that featured a man in a wheelchair, a fat kid, a fairly large adult woman, and several other not-quite-pretty characters.

Now, the reason Ed may be getting the axe is not because of this casting, but because creatively it's lost its way. But be that as it may, now's the time when people are coming out of the woodwork to point out Ed's diversity and beg for its life.

Reader Michelle Davis sent us a very polite e-mail in support of aid, which said in part:

One of the admirable things about Ed that wasn't mentioned in your column is the ground-breaking casting of "non-pretty" people. It takes guts these days to cast actors who don't fit in Hollywood's stereotypical mold of a beautiful/sexy man or woman... This reason alone is sufficient reason to hope Ed is not cancelled. We need all the representation of physical diversity on television that we can get.

Oh, do we? Frankly, we need all the decent plotting and characterization on television that we can get. "Diversity" is in no way an entertaining substitute for a show that's actually compelling to watch. Not that the producers of Ed made a big deal over the composition of their cast, but the point remains: bean-counting for underrepresented constituencies isn't sufficient reason to keep a show on the air, nor does it make up for a lack of entertainment in the show. Moreover, who in their right mind wants diversity-in-casting associated with a show that's painful to watch and tanking in the ratings?

Then the New York Daily News weighed in:

With "Ed," we like the characters, too - partly because they look more like us than do the rest of prime-time TV people... The core cast of "Friends," set in a major city, consists entirely of thin, glib white people. The cast of "Ed," set in the heartland town of Stuckeyville, incorporates almost all sizes, shapes, ages and articulation skills.

The Friends argument is horse puckey for any one of a number of reasons. First of all, when did NBC air the claim that Friends was representing social clans across America? Second of all, has anyone else run across those irritating articles in the alternative media describing how twenty- and thirtysomething people are forgoing nuclear families in lieu of "urban tribes"? You could actually make the argument that Friends merely reflects the reality of smug Urban Outfitters types glomming on to one another as they go to the local upscale market and debate the merits of black tellicherry peppercorns versus white ones.

However, I prefer to think that Friends is so firmly removed from reality as to qualify for fiction illustrating the perils of social engineering. Think about it: over the course of the show's run, these six people have run off nearly every other social contact they have, sabotaged their own or their alleged friends' romantic relationships whenever a friend threatened to stray outside the sextet, married and/or divorced and/or impregnated each other, and played musical residences. Because this takes place in Manhattan, this is cool; if this took place in West Virginia, it would be a intrafamily hillbilly soap opera.

Yet despite Friends' profound alienation from non-sociopathic human culture, people apparently love the show enough to justify paying the six actors salaries roughly equaling the GNP of one of those wretched war-torn countries the New York Times only reports on somewhere in the middle of the A section. Are people watching Friends for its realism? Hell, no. They're watching it for escapism.

The same goes for Ed. This is a show where everyone living in Stuckeyville not only knows everyone else, they're fond of them too. It's cozy and insular -- yet despite a set-up where seemingly generations of Stuckeyvillians have grown up, found jobs in, then apparently expired in Stuckeyville, the good citizens are neither provincial, nor violently inbred, nor taking their ideas for community-building activities from a Shirley Jackson story. That should indicate that we're treading in the land of the optimistically imaginative. Stuckeyville sells a fantasy of friendly small-town life to an audience that probably commutes to a job, lives far from friends and family post-college, or doesn't know who lives next door.

Ed is as much a fantasy as Friends. Not that there's anything wrong with this -- plenty of people tune into to decidedly unrealistic shows all the time, as Aaron Spelling and the Gene Roddenbery Empire can attest -- but the magical nature of Stuckeyville more or less blows any "Ed is realistic" argument out of the water. At the end of the day, you're left with a diverse cast -- who, by the way, seem diverse in appearance only, what with the majority of them being Stuckeyvillians born, bred and bound by their common experiences -- in the middle of a fantasy show.

Is that enough reason to save Ed? No. Nor is the diversity enough of a virtue to save Ed from the ax. There are other shows out there that do what Ed does, quietly rotating in people not quite like the Friends crew and declining to make a big deal about it. The difference is, a lot of those shows are still watchable, and Ed is not.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *