Episodes: Whose stories get told


I don't know if you noticed this, but a couple of weeks ago, Outsiders charted the biggest rating ever for an original series on WGN America. The second I saw that, I knew my beloved Manhattan was done for, because the approach that series embodied (a sophisticated, more subtle historical drama) was already all over the place, and the earthier approach Outsiders embodied was, well, not.

I didn't much like Outsiders either. I found it confused on a story level, full of characters whose motivations didn't make a ton of sense. And it just looked cheap to me, in a way that a show that is trying to build an alternate world living alongside our world rarely should.

And yet despite all of that, I was really glad for Outsiders' success, even as I probably won't be watching. And the reason for this is simple: in its own way, its success is a strike for Hollywood diversity.

Now, I realize this sounds ludicrous. After all, Outsiders' cast is almost entirely white people, and most of its most important characters are white men, to boot. And, of course, diversity of racial and gender perspectives is enormously important. But as I've always said, it's almost more important in terms of storytelling. The world of rich white dude shows is so full at this point that there's very little new room to be found.

And yet it's that first adjective, "rich," that almost always gets ignored when we talk about this. TV, by and large, is about people who have money, whether they've come by it honestly or not. And outside of a few rare exceptions, the economic status of the characters in the pilot is pretty much the economic status they'll hold as the series goes on. For a country that prides itself on the idea of anybody climbing the ladder and becoming better off, our TV shows very rarely reflect that.

And Outsiders very much is not about rich people. It's about people who might have some money, but are also so far off the economic grid as to not count. And, what's more, it's not about people who live in a major, coastal metropolis. It's about people who live in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains, and might possibly have magic powers (it was never made abundantly clear). It is, in other words, a completely new setting for this sort of thing.

This is the unspoken side of the diversity struggle. We can get shows about racial minorities on the air, or shows led by women, or even shows about LGBT characters, but they're all always set amid characters who live in fairly predictable urban areas, and who have lots of money to allow them not to struggle. A show like Orange Is the New Black has been (justifiably) acclaimed for its exploration of gender, race, and LGBT issues in America -- but it's just as conscious about class, about the way that Piper coming from money sets her apart from even poor white women who don't. And yet that's rarely written about in relation to the show, because TV critics (and I count myself in this number) don't have the language to discuss it, in the way that we do other forms of representation.

Writing is largely about perspective. And when we think about whose stories get to be told -- and rightly conclude there are way too many out there about rich white dudes -- we still don't really think about the limited geographical, political, and class strata we allow these characters to exist in. (That's to say nothing of religion, a subject TV doesn't dare touch with a 10-foot pole.) I once talked to a writer who successfully landed a show about relatively blue-collar characters on the air. And once the network picked it up, the executives didn't quite know what to do with it. They didn't understand that world, because Los Angeles, God love it, is its own little bubble. Sometimes I think the industry should just decamp to Topeka or something for a retreat.

The more that I watch TV in this era of peak TV, the more frustrated I am by how the "great" shows of the era seem to mix and match a few of the same tropes. The problem, honestly, is almost worse in comedy, where there are a ton of shows about disaffected, economically comfortable people in their 20s, where a life of privilege is presented with a wink as such a drag.

One of the reasons I'm so into Better Call Saul this season is that after figuring out some of the storytelling problems that bedeviled it in season one, it's settled into just telling stories in a world we don't always see. Yes, it's a law show. And yes, it's about a white guy, relatively well off (at this point), who is just a few steps off the traditionally heroic path. But look at how much of it has been invigorated by engaging with its New Mexico setting, with its protagonist's very rapid shift from a guy with no money to a guy with plenty, by its willingness to delve into arenas most other shows wouldn't, like retirement homes. It's left behind a show that is playing in familiar territory, but has changed up enough things to make it seem interesting. It's like how, say, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat reinvigorate the family sitcom, even though the families at the center are fairly well off, because issues of race inform nearly every story told on both shows. But it's also showing how you can do that with templates that seem completely threadbare at this point in TV's life cycle.

Most TV is generic. We've known that as long as the medium has existed. The difference, now, is that a lot of quality TV increasingly feels generic, too. It's still good, and still worth watching, but it feels like something you've seen before, increasingly empty calories. Look at the world around you. Just look at the people you meet every day, that maybe you don't instantly think of. Every one of those people is a story waiting to happen. And how few of them are being told? Maybe it's time to start.

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Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.