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So, So Fresh: US TV Is Starting to Reflect the US

Two breakout hits on primetime television have exploded the US constructions of race, culture, class and family.

LOS ANGELES - JAN 6: Bryshere Gray, Terrence Howard, Trai Byers at the FOX TV "Empire" Premiere Event at a ArcLight Cinerama Dome Theater on January 6, 2014 in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo: Helga Esteb /

Who remembers “The Humpty Dance“? The 1989 hit stands with the best hip-hop singles of the genre’s golden age. One of the Digital Underground song’s most quotable lines (and there are so many) is: “Samoans, do the Humpty Hump!” It was such a simple line, but it exploded the East Coast’s understanding of life in The Bay. Boston had a growing Cape Verdian population; DC was cooler because of the Ethiopian influence all around the Adams Morgan neighborhood – and New York was home to everyone: Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese and more, all dancing together under disco lights synched to a hip-hop beat. But, Samoans?


Apparently, Boo-Yaa Tribe did not stand alone, with about as many Samoans living in the United States as there are Samoans living in Samoa, about one-third of them in California. Of course, those of us who grew up with hip-hop did not linger too long over the facts of Samoan demographics. We were too busy moving forward, powering US popular culture, dancing at the margins where the only requirement for entry was “be cool,” which meant, mostly, be ahead, but don’t break a sweat getting there.

Now, finally, US television has caught up.

Television has developed projects that more accurately express who we are.

Buoyed by the success of ABC’s “Modern Family,” television has developed projects that more accurately express who we are. It is glorious and wonderful and mostly just fun. Shows like “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Blackish,” even “Empire,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” do more than just center people of color in each 30 or 60-minute time slot, and also do much more than accurately reflect how we look. These shows also express a refreshing diversity in terms of how we think, how we feel, even how we parent in non-White families and, often gloriously, perfectly hilariously, these shows center how we be.

The moment feels a whole lot like the country has flash-danced back to another era. Television in the late 1980s and 1990s, back in the “Humpty” days, celebrated Black family. Sensing that the post-Norman Lear lineups were too white and that the United States was way ready for a few shades of brown, NBC piloted “The Cosby Show,” and family television forever changed.

“Moesha,” “Family Matters” and “227” followed, featuring happy, wholesome families who just happened to be Black: a fun inflection here, some braided hair there, but not a whole lot that was distinctive to African-American life anywhere. With exceptions like “Martin,” “Living Single” and the uber-edgy “In Living Color,” the primetime options for Americans seeking brownness also delivered a kind of sameness: a mom, a dad, well-behaved kids, a nice home in the hood. While “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Sister Sister” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” showcased family configurations that deviated from the nuclear norm, they never diverged from the hetero-norm. This sameness soon grew stale, as the novelty of seeing Black folk on television who weren’t clapping their hands and screaming “dy-no-mite!” slowly wore off.

And now? So much more than family configuration has changed. Now, a single Black woman works as a powerful DC fixer on “Scandal.” Now, a Black woman entangles her multiethnic law students in the sticky web surrounding her white husband’s murder on “How To Get Away With Murder.” Now, a biracial mother and her African-American husband hold down their family in a majority white community on Blackish. Now, white gay fathers adopt a Vietnamese daughter who pals around with her Colombian step-grandmother on “Modern Family.”

Do we still want more Asians in our primetime lineup? Hells yeah!

That there is but one other program featuring any Asian-Americans in this list of cutting edge shows is certainly problematic. Do we still want more Asians in our primetime lineup? Hells yeah! But only if they’re featured on a show as good as “Fresh Off the Boat.” The nearly unprecedented wonder of a television program featuring Asian-Americans makes “Fresh” worth focusing on. Perhaps because the comedy series is based on the 2013 same-titled memoir written by the real-life Eddie Huang, “Fresh” is fresh. The title teases the racialist, derogatory term used to describe newly arrived immigrants, but it’s also a big pun, a play on the positive, affirming hip-hop colloquialism for anything extra ahead of the mainstream. This verbal dexterity is just one of the program’s never-ending winks. The ability of dispossessed people to reappropriate terms like FOB and develop sustenance and community around a multiplicity of meanings, historically one of the most sparkly gems in the African-American Crown of Cool, has now officially been claimed by our POC sisters and brothers in a way that shifts the tidal patterns in the mainstream. Signifyin’ with a Taiwanese accent? Yeah, that’s fresh.

And because “Fresh” gives that mainstream sufficient side-eye in each episode, everyone watching knows that though the Huang family lives in the suburbs, their minds and hearts remain in a close-knit community of raucous Chinese-Americans. Their connection to family and friendship fortifies the Huangs, even though they’ve moved from the grit and reality of Washington, DC, to the theme-park fantasy of Orlando, Florida. Memories of Ma Huang (Constance Wu) going gangsta everywhere from the market to an epic poker game back in DC do more than keep it real. These images of the past protect the three Huang boys from the microaggressions they experience every day now that they live so close to Disney. Yup, sometimes you have to just tap that azz with the bumper of your oversized SUV, then let’em know their bodies bumped your car. Hit’em with tonight’s dinner, Ma!

The Huangs are cautious of Americana, doubt the fantasy and dwell among the dubious. Though Jessica and Louis Huang (Randall Park) wear 1980s pastel, they have no time for the frivolity of suburbia. They have a business to run, a family to protect and sustain, a grandmother to love and three boys to raise. They love the United States, but refuse to relinquish their authentic selves to be more American. By interrogating “America,” the Huang family improves “America,” elevates the discourse about “America,” and all of this is great for “America.”

The parenting style of the Huang family also inspires. When the youngest Huang boy loses an oversized (perhaps symbolically white) stuffed animal to their live-in grandmother in his first game of poker, he elicits a sound too perfect for words, a sound that must be heard, a sound that captures the pain of childhood loss better than any other ever produced for television – and likely film. This most perfect sound does not persuade the grown-ups to return the toy. Grandma calmly pops another salty snack in her mouth and kind of grins in an understated gloat. Later, even Mom offers her soothing voice but, using it, explains, “That’s poker, baby.”

Finally, a network TV kid learning to suffer the pain, deal with consequences and learn about loss.

Genius! Finally, a network TV kid learning to suffer the pain, deal with consequences and learn about loss. Maybe this scene doesn’t reflect every viewer’s parenting style (though arguments could be made that it should), but it reflects a whole lot of Americans’ parenting styles. It just explodes the genre of US family television with its utter lack of sappy saws. Instead of parental platitudes, “Fresh” is unsanitized, raw truth: Life is tough, baby. Next time, make sure you win.

Feel that fresh air?

Families of color don’t coddle. We can’t. There is no box of tissues for us when we cry. People point and laugh when we are called Ying Ming. Too many people are waiting to feast on our Otherness for us to have the luxury – the privilege – of actually presenting ourselves as prey. Next time, baby, you gotta win.

And a next time there surely will be.

The real-life Eddie Huang has lamented the great compromises made to adapt his memoir for mainstream US consumption. I understand Huang wants to go hard, and I dig that about him. I also dig his frustration because it is my own.

Black folk have all felt the surreal, contradictory combination of pride and despondency, a deeply felt and bizarre contradiction, when POC perform within the parameters of The Hollywood Machine. Seeing oneself almost-just-right onscreen is a lot for people of color to process: We are invisible, then made visible, yet not accurately so, which is a new kind of invisibility.

“Fresh Off the Boat” is the first situation comedy featuring a Taiwanese-American family on network TV. There will be an element of cultural sanitization before, sometime in the future, a network will develop a family show featuring Asian-Americans that is as gritty as this year’s “Empire.”

If “Fresh” brings Asian cool, “Empire” is simply fly, which, in hip-hop parlance, is so much more than dope, tight or even a beast (though “Empire,” most definitely, is a beast). Even more than all that, “Empire” not only flies, it is fly. Meaning it is elevation, which means it elevates the game (and the discourse, too), which means it got us all high.

In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, poor, uneducated, no-class people fight, argue and cuss. The N-word is used. A woman with broken dreams living in the prison of a pre-second wave marriage seeks conversation, and so is called a whore. A hand is crushed. Small animals are tortured. A woman is killed. The law, a kind of afterthought, is taken into men’s own hands with a strict set of codes, like the code of the streets. Men seek their own, satisfying, retributive vengeance.

Urkel is over. “Empire” done changed the game.

And it is beautiful, one of the most important narratives of the 20th century. On its surface, Steinbeck’s novella is simply another iteration of the pulp fiction serialized in certain magazines and published in trashy novels that the author frequently references. But with the book’s elegant descriptions of the natural world, examinations of the human condition, exploration of important social issues and its central theme of loneliness, aching human loneliness, Of Mice and Men is a work of literary art.

“Empire” also features poor, uneducated, no-class people who fight, argue and cuss. The N-word is not used. A woman with broken dreams living in a prison of the privatized industrial complex seeks freedom, opportunity and the respect of her peers, and so is called a bitch. The off-camera sound of fist against flesh makes men smile. No animals are tortured. A man is killed. The law, a kind of afterthought, is taken into men’s own hands with a strict set of codes, the code of the streets. Men seek their own, satisfying, retributive vengeance.

And it is beautiful, one of the most important programs in US television. On its surface, Lee Daniels’ primetime serial is simply another iteration of the soap operas that have captivated US audiences since the 1964 debut of “Peyton Place.” But, with the program’s elegant use of Kehinde Wiley portraiture, examinations of the human condition, exploration of important social issues and its central theme of love, aching human love, “Empire” is a work of telegenic triumph.

That it goes hard also makes it flier. “Empire” grips not with “Dallas”-era dialogue about who has the biggest oil drill or the shiniest patent leather pumps. While music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) stirs a wicked brew of family drama by positioning his three sons as adversaries battling for control of the company he’s about to take public in a high-stakes IPO, the family struggle on “Empire” is about much more than stock options.

Lucious is so homophobic, in one searing flashback he slams his high-heels-wearing young son in a back-alley trash can. That same boy becomes a man who struggles with his identity, who pounds his head against the closet door; but, bolstered by the loving support of the same family he is pitted against, this gay man sings out the truth of his identity to a cheering crowd of equally fly Black folk who soar with him as he comes out. Played with elegance, sex appeal and real musical talent by Jussie Smollett, Jamal Lyon honors the experiences of brothers in The Life.

“Empire” goes just as hard on mental illness, exploding barriers to whole health in the Black community by examining, and so demystifying, bipolar disorder in Andre Lyon (Trai Byers). From the early scene when his white wife bullies him to take a handful of mysterious pills, to the explosion in the corporate office he usually runs, and his poignant catharsis in a stuck elevator with his two brothers, Dre is not just some crazy motherfucker on the street who’s off his meds. He is a whole person, beaten by a disease, aching. Mostly, though, like ‘Mal, he is loved.

Holding firm all this love is a Black woman, always the spine of the spine, played with the beauty and power African-American audiences have expected (and wondrously received) from Taraji P. Henson ever since she was the one worth watching in John Singleton’s 2001 film Baby Boy. (We see you, ‘Vette!)

Cookie is not your castrator, not your Sapphire, not your THOT, and ain’t hardly your cookie. She can drink down a crew of men, wildly throw an Other Woman’s clothes out her ex-man’s bedroom window, and even call her son a queen. We Black women still dig her, and are never offended by her. We Black women still want to be her.

Never been to the Jersey Shore, never wanted to be a housewife, and Cookie Lyon ain’t tryna keep up with no body. As the storyline, and the fate of the Lyon family, goes up-down-up-down-up-down in each episode of “Empire,” Henson holds steady: steady in her purpose, steady in her personal character, steady in her devotion to her children and steady in her love.

We Black women have been through it all, and so, like Cookie, we have to go hard, prison walls hard, to hold it down. This is some real shit. As each signature Taraji-esque eyebrow arch tells, we go that hard because we are so soft, so do-anything-for-you-baby, when we gaze into the faces of our own children.

Urkel is over. “Empire” done changed the game. Of course, Huang wants to explode the real issues that affected his own family, his own family of color. Going harder, as Huang would like, will be another kind of win, one I hope to live to cheer for on American TV.

But, whether I see it or not, win we shall, together. Eventually. In the meantime, the edge has been cut. “Fresh Off the Boat” is knocking the mainstream out, then blaming them for lying there. For flipping that script, well, this Black girl says yes. Yes to Fresh.

And “Empire”? Some folks want to talk about tuning in like some kind of guilty pleasure, like they should sort of be ashamed to be down with that program. This Black girl also says, don’t be ashamed. Just as Kehinde Wiley takes regular folks off the street and positions them in portraiture that references the most celebrated European masterpieces, “Empire” has raised on up the culture and the community of the streets. Common folks are we, dynamic, flawed, struggling, but always, this show reminds us, beautiful. Whether up, or down, my gorgeous people of color, you really are so beautiful. Give the world a show. Proudly.

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