Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison play Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane in Fox's new show Sleepy Hollow.
It's easy, when writing about network TV, to be cynical.
For example, when I heard the Fox network had been holding annual conferences on diversity, telling top show producers their casts and crew had to feature more people of color, I remained skeptical. What's the catch, I wondered?
Turns out, the network began talking about diversity as a business imperative about three years ago, shifting the conversation to the need for TV programing that reflects the multicultural reality of today's world to keep younger viewers. One year, representatives from several advocacy groups representing different ethnic minorities made presentations. The next time, Fox offered a simpler presentation.
The Deadline Hollywood blog reported on this year's event, held in October for more than 150 people including representatives from the top talent agencies in town, Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons, and top executives from several Fox-owned TV and film business divisions.
The message: Diversity increases the chance Fox will pick up a new show, promote it, syndicate it and see it do well with audiences.
Years ago, an actor/writer working on a pilot episode for Fox told me she suspected a 2010 session just led producers to transform tertiary white characters into ethnic minorities, with no change in the scripts to acknowledge the shift in race or culture.
But then came this fall's sleeper hit, Sleepy Hollow, Fox's tale about the modern-day adventures of Ichabod Crane. Ichabod somehow awakens in modern times after a 250-year sleep. The story unfolds like The X-Files meets A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (except the Yankee moves forward in time rather than back). Crane teams with a young cop to tackle supernatural weirdness related to the return of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
And the young cop, Abbie Mills, is played by Nicole Beharie, an up-and-coming African-American actor who made a splash as Jackie Robinson's wife this spring in the film 42. Suddenly, the show was anchored by a strong black woman who gets to kick down doors, tote a trusty sidearm and play skeptical Dana Scully to Ichabod Crane's witchcraft-wise Fox Mulder (for the uninitiated, that's an X-Files shout-out).
When the show featured a storyline centered on Mills' sister, we got to see two black women in an action/adventure setting, fighting the bad guys instead of waiting to be rescued or seduced. It was exactly the kind of diverse casting I had been waiting for since 1999, when the issue hit a crisis point as the broadcast networks offered a fall slate of new TV shows without a single character of color.
This isn't just about helping redefine roles for black women on TV. In the case of Sleepy Hollow, it's about finding new storylines and fresh perspectives. An upcoming episode will find the duo facing the legacy of slavery — a storyline that a more old-fashioned network series might have glossed over now has a new twist with an African-American co-lead.
Look across Fox's schedule and you see similar diversity on the comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, featuring Andre Braugher, Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz (when I met the cast in July, Fumero and Beatriz joked about their surprise at being on a show with two Latinas, but no one playing the "spicy character"). The network's Almost Human, which makes its debut Sunday and Monday, features African-American actor Michael Ealy as co-lead alongside New Zealand native Karl Urban.
And my friend and fellow TV critic James Poniewozik at Time magazine wrote a great online column about how Fox's adding Damon Wayans Jr. back to the cast of The New Girl breaks the unspoken "one black friend" rule on many TV comedies (I'd expand that to "one minority friend" rule, just to include shows ranging from Big Bang Theory to Super Fun Night, where the nonwhite best friend isn't black).
I'm told such casting at Fox is often a result of the diversity sessions, which now include corporate siblings such as FX and Fox Searchlight studios. In the sessions, the case is made that diversity is good business as well as a good deed. Casting an actor like Beharie doesn't happen unless someone is pushing for it, and it's been fun to see that move rewarded with strong ratings and an order for Season 2 before the first has barely started.
This makes it all the more ironic that Fox has been criticized as airing the most racist new show of the fall season, a comedy from the producers of Family Guy and Ted called Dads.
The show features Giovanni Ribisi and Seth Green as millennial video game entrepreneurs with horrifically embarrassing fathers. Said fathers aim insulting jokes at Latina and Asian-American cast members, including a bit where an attractive Asian staffer has to dress like a schoolgirl to distract a group of Chinese businessmen.
Some people reduced the controversy to a case of "don't make fun of minorities." But my theory is that the humor in Dads failed because it centered on stereotypes about the characters, encouraging the audience to see them as crude caricatures. You may be able to get away with that after viewers get to know characters of color; but if you begin by putting them in a cultural box, it's tougher to see them any other way.
There's one wild card left: How will white audiences react? Ask producers of long-ago shows such as Homicide: Life on the Street or The Wire, and they'll note that one reason their shows struggled for viewers was their casts were so diverse that white audiences seemed apathetic.
But today's TV executives are betting that millennials expect more diversity in their pop culture than previous generations — a thought echoed in a recent study released by UCLA that found more viewers were drawn to shows that mirrored the country's ethnic diversity, with smaller audiences for programs on either side of parity.
There's more to be done. ABC's Scandal proves there's ratings gold in giving a talented person of color the sole starring role. And there's a lot of hiring left to do before TV catches up with the country's population of Hispanics or features Asian-Americans and Native Americans.
But Sleepy Hollow just may teach a lesson some of us have been shouting for years.
Sometimes, by doing good, you can also end up doing well, too.