Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Quick Primer on Why Television Is Getting Better Way Too Slowly


It's been a rough week for fans of diverse television. Actually, no, scratch that - it's been a rough year for fans of diverse television. Characters we love, fan favorites, have been dropping like flies and it feels like nothing we as fans can do can stop it. Even worse, the biggest offenders are the shows that previously had been hailed as benchmarks for diverse representation on TV. Those same shows that inspired think-pieces and academic papers and tons of gifsets on tumblr are the ones hacking and slashing at their characters - particularly at women of color.

Ugh.

I can almost guarantee that, given the widespread nature of this problem and the sheer number of shows affected, you know of a couple of these already. But here's a not particularly brief list of characters who have died or been written off in the past few weeks just from shows that I personally watch. Needless to say, SPOILERS: Kira Yukimura (Teen Wolf), Abbie Mills (Sleepy Hollow), Laurel Lance (Arrow), Lexa (The 100), Zoe Monroe (The 100), Lincoln (The 100), Yidu (Vikings), Kwenthrith (The 100), and Elektra (Daredevil). And, again, that's literally just a list of characters from shows that I like.

When we expand the list and look at all the female characters killed just in the past week on television, it's even more grim. We lost Nina (The Americans), Mimi (Empire), Camila (Empire), Trudy (Hap and Leonard), and Angel (Hap and Leonard). Again, that's female characters killed in the past week. Thanks to The Hollywood Reporter for assembling that super depressing list.

So why the hell is this all happening? And why is it happening all right now all together like this? Well, there are a variety of reasons, but they basically break down into two camps. On one side you have the shows where these deaths were not particularly shocking plot points - like Vikings where there are about as many main female characters as male characters, Hap and Leonard where the characters in question died in the book the show is based on, and Empire where these were not series regulars and they were also villains and so the show is probably going to be fine. 

And then you have the shows where as far as we the audience can tell, these characters were killed because the writers had either gotten themselves into a corner or because the executive producer was such a raging jerk to the actor that there was no question of the character ever coming back. So, you know, The 100 and Teen Wolf and Sleepy Hollow

It's this second category and these three shows in particular that I want to focus on today. See, these three shows are all ones that have been hailed (by me, in fact) at various times as exemplars of diverse storytelling. They're shows that made their brand on being inclusive and friendly and a sign that women and people of color were now welcome in genres like science fiction and urban fantasy. So for these three shows in particular to turn around and kill off some of their most beloved and important characters feels like a slap in the face.

We might as well start with The 100, as that's the one we all already knew about. Earlier this year, The 100 made headlines in a bad way for its utter bungling of Lexa's death. Lexa, half of one of the most prominent and beloved lady-love relationships on television, died unceremoniously in the seventh episode of the season, hit by a stray bullet while she was literally just lying in bed. 

Her death was shocking, naturally, but even more so because the show's executive producer, Jason Rothenberg, had previously implicitly confirmed that Lexa would survive through the end of the season. Fans felt betrayed and also used - the publicity of Clarke and Lexa's relationship was a big cornerstone in The 100's viewership going into season three, and the fans were understandably angry to have that shot out from under them.

Even worse, Rothenberg seemed to have no concept of why the fans reacted to Lexa's death with such vitriol, pronouncing that it was a logical choice as Alycia Debnam-Carey, Lexa's actress, needed to leave to spend more time filming her other show, Fear the Walking Dead. A hypothetically reasonable point, but there was no need to actually kill her. 

Lexa could have gone on a journey or had to fight people in other parts of her territory or otherwise just kind of buggered off for a while, able to return if she needed to but otherwise happily written out without being absolutely dead.

The antipathy for Rothenberg and his manipulative writing, however, only intensified last week when Lincoln, one of the main characters for over two seasons now, died horribly while protecting a bunch of political prisoners. In this case, there was no question of why Lincoln died. There also wasn't a question of why Lincoln, previously a central figure in the show, spent most of the third season wandering around aimlessly and definitely not engaging in the plot. 

The reason, of course, is that Lincoln's actor, Ricky Whittle, had a series of confrontations and arguments with Rothenberg over his role on the series, particularly when it came out that Whittle had been cast as the lead in HBO's American Gods. Rothenberg's behavior was, according to Whittle, borderline abusive, and it was because of this conflict that Lincoln's season arc was scrapped and his character was killed. So that's shitty.

Like I said before, all of this is even more frustrating when you consider that The 100 enjoyed, up until this season, a well earned reputation as a haven for diverse representation. A science fiction show set in the future, The 100 ostensibly takes place in a world where race and gender really aren't meaningful divisions anymore. Instead, people are divided by clan and ability to contribute to the society. Featuring a cast of young, attractive people from a variety of racial backgrounds, The 100 seemed poised to actually create a vision of the future that actually made sense.

And then all of this happened.

The problem with this, I hope you can understand, is that while both of these deaths, and the death of Zoe Monroe earlier in the season, make sense from a storytelling standpoint (at least nominally), they contribute to an atmosphere on the show that is deeply unhealthy. In addition to these deaths, The 100 this season seems to have forgotten all of its core principles. Right now on the show, nearly every main character of color is evil or dead, and the only people with any hope to stop them are the white heroes. That's messed up, especially for a show once touted as the future of diverse television.

But while The 100 had a high pedestal to fall from, Teen Wolf really didn't. News of Kira's departure from the show and her actress' frustration with the executive producers didn't come as a shock to anyone because, at this point, we've heard this story more times than not.

It goes like this: Arden Cho joined Teen Wolf three years ago, bringing with her a cool new storyline about Japanese culture and mythology. After that storyline was all wrapped up, though, she stuck around, a beloved character who was just kind of part of the team now. No, she didn't have any actual storyline or even show up every episode, but she was a star, right? 

Cho explained that in this time period she got a number of other work offers, most of which she had to turn down because of her schedule at Teen Wolf. Since she didn't know which episodes she would be in, or for how long, and since Jeff Davis and the executive producing staff declined to tell her this or move her schedule around to accommodate her, she was stuck turning down awesome projects all so she could turn up every few episodes for a couple of lines and no actual storyline. Lame.

Understandably, then, Cho announced after the fifth season that she would not be returning for the sixth. Totally makes sense, even if it is sad. Kira Yukimura, you will be missed, and Arden Cho, I hope you find some awesome work that deserves you.

The problem here, then, is that while Teen Wolf has sometimes enjoyed a reputation for being diverse and interesting, it has a brutal history of killing off or writing off female characters and characters of color because the show wouldn't accommodate their actors. Seriously. 

Going back to the second season, when Colton Haynes left to go do Arrow, the show made a point of leaving his character open-ended. He could come back if he wanted. When Sinqua Walls, on the other hand, announced that he had booked a couple of episodes on Once Upon a Time, his character, Boyd, was kidnapped and later killed.

Gage Golightly, meanwhile, also booked another show and didn't even get the courtesy of dying on screen. Her character, Erica, died off screen during the hiatus, presumably tortured to death by evil werewolves. By contrast, when Tyler Hoechlin left for good, his character "went on a trip to find himself" and was effectively eulogized in every episode for the first part of season five. But Keahu Kahuanui's Danny just sort of walked off the show at one point and was never mentioned again. Do you see my point.

In both this case and that of The 100, the big stressor seems to be how the producers react to actors who've booked other projects. And in both cases, it seems that the reactions vary based on how much, sadly, the producers seem to like the actor. On Teen Wolf, at least, we can see clear favoritism in their responses, with Dylan O'Brien able to film the Maze Runner franchise while staying on the show but Sinqua Walls having to leave for a three episode arc on a different network. It doesn't look good.

The most egregious case this week, though, has got to be that of Sleepy Hollow, which finished out its third season with another dramatic noble sacrifice. Only this time it was Abbie Mills, the woman who was our protagonist from day one, sacrificing herself so that her sidekick, the white male Ichabod Crane, could live. What the hell?

Like the previous two entries, sadly, it seems that all of this stemmed from the actress' desire to not work on the show anymore. But who could blame her? While Abbie Mills was set up as the main character through all of season one, the second season saw Nicole Beharie and her character pushed aside to make room for interminable (and critically reviled) storylines about all the white people on the show. They even brought in more white people so they could have more white people drama. The relationship and tension between Abbie and Ichabod was gone and Abbie was left entirely out of the bulk of the story, which understandably made Beharie question why she was on the show at all.

After the third season did not show much noticeable improvement on this situation, it only makes sense that Beharie would choose to leave Sleepy Hollow. And that's not even taking into account the amount of time and energy she had to expend promoting a show that didn't value her or being subjected to quiet racism by the show's producers and marketing team. I really don't think we can blame her on this one.

What her death meant, however, is that instead of being the awesome black female protagonist of a cool urban fantasy show, Abbie Mills becomes, in retrospect, a building block for the character development of Ichabod Crane. Just one more dead woman giving him a "complex backstory" and lots of man pain. And I'm not cool with that. I thought it was fantastic early on in the show that Abbie was the one with the mysterious and dramatic past, that Abbie was the one with the mentor who died mysteriously for her character development, that Abbie was the main character. But apparently I was wrong all along, and that retroactively blows.

So. It's been a hard week for people who like diverse television.

It's hard to look at a rash of deaths like this and not feel like all the writers in Hollywood sat down together to figure out how to kill off their most promising diverse characters. We all know logically that it's not true, that there's not some (conscious) conspiracy to murder all of our hopes and dreams for more inclusive television shows. But it still feels like that, doesn't it? Ultimately, there were a variety of factors that played into the past few weeks of murder, but that doesn't make it any less of a problem.

I think, ultimately, that one of the biggest trends we can see here is the problem with having a white man at the helm of a "progressive" show. Now, I'm not saying that all white men are bad and evil and shouldn't make shows that include diverse characters, but I also don't think it's accidental that the three biggest offenders are also shows that are notoriously written and produced by white men who by their privilege and nature have a different perspective on what it means to kill a female character or character of color than those marginalized groups do.

There's a fundamental disconnect right now between fans and showrunners, a disconnect that has both sides disgusted and angry with the other. But if you're thinking that my solution here is to try to listen better and understand, for once you'd be wrong.

I want you, the fans, to get angry. To get pissed. Teen Wolf, The 100, Sleepy Hollow, Arrow, Daredevil, they're all shows that are accustomed to the fans appreciating everything they do. So tell them how pissed of you are. Tell them loud and don't let them forget. This kind of writing is unacceptable and frankly these behind the screens stories aren't any better. So tell them to do better. Tell them that if they don't shape up, you won't keep watching.

And then follow through.

That's where I'm at right now. I'm having a hard time even imagining keeping going with a lot of these shows.* I love diverse television, but if this is how "diverse television" is going to act, then I'm going elsewhere. I'm going over here, with Agents of SHIELD and Supergirl and How to Get Away with Murder and Shadowhunters and a bunch of other shows I might not know super well yet but am willing to give a chance. I want stories that make me feel better about the world, and I want shows that I can support without feeling like I'm enabling the abusive behavior of producers who prey on young, talented women and people of color.

It's time to take a long hard look at the shows we love, chickadees, and figure out if they're still worthy of that love. And we need to be willing to walk away.


*I also suspect that Raven might be the next to die on The 100 and I can't deal with that.

2 comments:

  1. If you ever get the chance, The Librarians is doing pretty well so far. Only 2 seasons, but it's heading in a good direction.

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  2. Elektra (Daredevil).

    At least in Elektra's case, being resurrected is what she's most famous for, so there are pretty good odds we'll see her again.

    The most egregious case this week, though, has got to be that of Sleepy Hollow, which finished out its third season with another dramatic noble sacrifice. Only this time it was Abbie Mills, the woman who was our protagonist from day one, sacrificing herself so that her sidekick, the white male Ichabod Crane, could live.

    This, though... We don't just lose Abbie here, we also lost one of the best sister relationships on TV right now (Abbie and Jenny were a jewel). To add insult to injury, Abbie even goes out saying that her destiny was just to serve Ichabod's, which means that when you say...

    Abbie Mills becomes, in retrospect, a building block for the character development of Ichabod Crane.

    ... it's not even an upshot, it's the literal text of the show (and I can't help wondering, given its defiance of how the Witnesses are supposed to be equals, whether it's an FU to Beharie for leaving). At the same time, they've been giving Corbin more agendas and secrets and minions, effectively nullifying that wonderfully refreshing element where the most important part of a white man's life was mentoring two black girls to become the women and heroes they needed to be (and being well proud of that role).

    It's also relevant that you say "another" sacrifice, because Abbie has given her life to the cause twice before this - in both cases, Team Good was able to get her back. But look at Ichabod's character, and tell me it makes sense for him to let anyone give their live a *third* time when he could do it instead. I don't even mean that in a paternalistic way; I'd have just as much trouble seeing it with a male Mills, or a white one.

    Not to mention that the same thing happened with Orlando Jones. Three of the first season's five main castmembers were black, and the showrunners have essentially driven two of them away.

    This has noped me out of the show altogether. I won't be getting any more of it.

    We all know logically that it's not true, that there's not some (conscious) conspiracy to murder all of our hopes and dreams for more inclusive television shows. But it still feels like that, doesn't it?

    It rather does.

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