It’s Ok To Criticize Bad Black TV

It happens at least once a day. Seemingly out of nowhere I’ll hear a frustrated former TV lover go on a tirade about the sad state of programming that features predominantly African American characters. These rants always contain references to the the moving affection of The Cosby Show, the social responsibility of A Different World, or the brash hilarity of Martin.

There’s really no rebuttal to these criticisms because they’re absolutely right. Nothing crafted for Black viewers today comes close to the quality we’ve witnessed in the past, yet African Americans are consistently deterred by other Black viewers from honestly critiquing representations of ourselves on television.

The reality is although cable brought more black and brown faces to scripted television series in the past year, most of the showings have been less than impressive. We watch every episode in droves hoping for the best and providing realtime reactions via social networking sites like Twitter. But when the show disappoints, we don’t hesitate to air our grievances.

However, if Twitter is any indication, there are a growing number of Bad Black TV Defenders (BBTVDs we’ll call them) telling those with the gall to have standards to shut up and be grateful for the few vaguely positive images we receive.

These series have yet to be able to find that perfect synergy of nuanced acting, compelling writing and skillful direction. That’s the truth, so why shouldn’t say it? Because the BBTVDs believe we’re still beholden to the idea that we have a duty to support every Black production. But they’re wrong.

We are consumers, and we deserve better.

We deserve more than the cinematic scraps that have been fed to us since the golden age of Black television and film in the 90s. We are not defeating ourselves by calling a spade a spade.

 A good sign you’re watching substandard Black television is when the positive comments are reduced to things like; “at least it’s not by Tyler Perry,” “it’s so nice to see Black actors working,” or “her shoes are really cute.”

Black audiences are so used to the deprivation that we’ll hold up things that really aren’t victories. Not only should we continue to be critical consumers, but we should be even more forceful in our evaluations. African Americans don’t have to just accept what’s tossed our way because we are valuable, and everyone knows it except us. The Game’s premiere this year was the highest rated sitcom broadcast on Cable ever. That’s huge.

That we should shut our mouths and be happy for what we’ve got seems like the ultimate concession to racist television executives that refuse to acknowledge our buying power and brand loyalty.

We give them numbers, but what do they give us?

Quite frankly, It’s heartening to see that we still have standards. Not every show is going to be iconic like The Wire or A Different World, but asking for a show on basic cable with a solid storyline and strong character development shouldn’t be looked upon as hypercritical.

I appreciate the creatives who fight for fair representation, but there is much work to do. Black women are looking for characters that challenge the stereotypical ideas of our womanhood, and even in shows that are created for us, that’s nowhere to be found.

After seeing the buoyant elegance of Clair Huxtable on screen for eight seasons, the outcry for a similar depiction is perfectly normal. For Black audiences television has regressed, and viewers are simply asking If we could do it in the height of the Reagan Administration why on earth can’t we do it now?

There are more than enough Black and brilliant actors, writers, directors, and producers in Hollywood. Perhaps they’re not given adequate resources for their projects or perhaps the talent that’s funded is subpar, but something has to change.

I was always taught most people will do as little as you’ll accept and no more. Well right now the arbiters of our images are doing the least, and our silence won’t help that.

Kimberly Foster is the Editor and Publisher of For Harriet. Email her at with comments or find her on Twitter.

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