TV Reboots Have a Long Way to Go on Inclusivity (Column)

The network television climate of 2018 is marked by a couple of key trends: An often-too-incremental but real movement, pushed along by voices in the media and among fans, towards greater inclusivity onscreen, and a flood of reboots and revivals from the semi-recent past.

But those two trends tend to run in direct opposition to one another, as recent panels at the TCAs proved. Two shows returning to CBS this fall, “Murphy Brown” and “Magnum P.I.,” as well as a reboot of “Charmed” on the CW, promise, with varying degrees of credibility, to address the times in which we live, a promise also made by last season’s revivals of “Will & Grace” and “Roseanne.” Both of those sitcoms fell short, ultimately, and judging by the panel for “Magnum,” which bobbled the question of inclusivity in the writers’ room, hope is not high for the new crop. These shows may have some new faces, but behind the scenes, they’re being made in the same old way and with the same old ideas. Perhaps it’s unsurprising: Creators need to do more than pay lip service to today’s news to make old shows feel current.

Reviving a TV show means carting back its way of approaching the world, a mission that can bring with it both nostalgia and a somewhat dubious mustiness. (Were “Murphy Brown” made today, its fictional newsroom would surely not be quite so overwhelmingly white, for instance.) But rebooting a show would seem to present new opportunities, were network TV not so locked into a mentality that hasn’t kept pace with other industries. To wit: “Magnum” has recast the lead role with an actor of color and a sidekick role with a woman — swapping out Tom Selleck in favor of Jay Hernandez and John Hillerman for Perdita Weeks.

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The recasting, though, seems to have little meaningful impact on the show’s plot. A question from Remezcla’s Yolanda Machado about how Magnum’s new ethnic identity would affect the storytelling immediately deflated the energy in the room, as it became clear that the creators had not thought through the question, let alone how to answer it diplomatically. “We’re certainly not denying the fact that he’s Latino,” said executive producer Eric Guggenheim. “But, yeah, it is something that is acknowledged, and we plan to acknowledge it throughout the series, I think.” As to a follow-up about whether there were any Latinx writers on the show, executive producer Peter M. Lenkov added, “No, but it’s not for any reason other than, you know, just when you’re doing a show, staffing a show, it’s incredibly hard to find writers.” Lenkov later clarified on Twitter that there was a Latinx writer on the “Magnum” staff. The error, though, spoke volumes: Writing Magnum as a realistically Latinx character, as opposed to a generic character incidentally played by a Latinx actor, was a low enough priority that it could easily be forgotten entirely.

Questions about the intersection of “Magnum” and race should have been easy to anticipate, not merely because of the steady drumbeat of such questions directed at CBS in the past, but also because Hernandez’s casting opening up potential new aspects of the story. The fact that the producers were so unprepared suggests that the casting really was meant as a surface-level swap, one without any real ramifications at all. No one expects a light-footed procedural like “Magnum” to recenter itself around questions of identity, but a character changing race necessarily changes the character.

Notably, their colleagues on the CW, presenting a panel for a rebooted “Charmed” featuring an ethnically inclusive triad of witches, were prepared both with an answer and with a favorable set of facts: The show, producers said, is to explore how different cultures intersect with witchcraft and includes in its writers’ room a Latinx witchcraft hobbyist.

It’s a phenomenon that we’ve seen before, as when “Roseanne” returned, expanding the show’s palette by giving Roseanne Conner a black and a gender-fluid grandchild, but seeming never to have thought about how her family might alter her thinking about politics. (It’s not that a Roseanne whose family was so diverse would necessarily be liberal, but she would likely not be able to so easily thoughtlessly bulldoze arguments rooted in empathy.) And “Will & Grace,” bound and determined to address the state of politics in the late 2010s, did so with an ensemble practically as monolithically white as had been the original series. The show gained an assistant character, played by Anthony Ramos, whom the writers never came close to figuring out. It also lost Shelley Morrison’s housekeeper Rosario, which may have been the right decision and an unavoidable one given Morrison’s retirement, but made the show just that much less representative. The show’s insistence on confronting politics from a liberal perspective ran up against how little it seemed to reflect the inclusivity that is, or should be, a key liberal value.

Casting — as with Jayden Rey as Roseanne’s granddaughter or Ramos on “Will & Grace” or Hernandez on “Magnum” — is an excellent first step, one that reflects years of outspoken advocacy from TV viewers gradually reaching an ossified industry. “Murphy Brown’s” panel featured Nik Dodani, an actor of color plugged into the show in a role as a social-media manager (a nod to millennial culture that may end up archly funny or deeply clunky, depending on how plugged-in the writers are). But it’s far too easy for casting to be treated as the final step, as though the point of inclusivity were solely giving actors jobs. And rarely is this disconnect more visible than when old shows shift their perspective ever-so-slightly, adding a cast member but keeping a decades-old sensibility. It’s really about telling different kinds of stories, ones that have historically been heard less frequently — and those stories can be told well by the sort of writers that the “Magnum” team found so hard to find but that are getting jobs on streaming and on cable.

But, of course, the whole point of revivals and reboots is to avoid showing the audience what they haven’t seen before, slipping just enough “dealing with politics” into the story without generating real political heat or risk. It comes with the territory: Reboots and revivals are meant to feel comfortable and safe, reminding the audience of a simpler time when they first watched Murphy smack down a hater or Magnum crack a case. But every craze in TV eventually fades, and it’s hard to believe the audience won’t get tired of storytelling whose very purpose, even more so than the rest of broadcast TV, is avoiding risk.

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