Inside the NBA analyst and former Sixers star Charles Barkley has a new gig that's likely to take him further than usual from sports.
On Sunday, during a meeting with reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer meetings in Beverly Hills, Calif., TNT announced it had greenlighted a series -- working title The Race Card -- that "will follow Barkley as he goes on a personal journey to explore and understand why our country is so divided right now."
It's expected to premiere early in 2017.
"I really love his ambition," said TBS/TNT president Kevin Reilly told me during a Turner Entertainment party in Los Angeles Sunday night. "First of all, Charles is one of the few guys who is not afraid to get in the middle of the very thorny, and unfortunately, all-too-real and complex issue of race relations...and just tension in our society in general. And to take a provocative position that's usually not necessarily predictable.
"But he feels really strongly that he's given an opportunity to get out there and actually bring this to the forefront, and create a dialogue, and he's going to bring a Who's Who [of people] with him to both dramatize it, to opine on it, to participate. And he hopes it's sort of a lightning rod, and a really constructive dialogue."
The way Reilly sees it, "it would be really, really easy for [Barkley] to not take this on, but he felt strongly about it...and I think it's to be applauded." Plus, if the current election cycle proves nothing else, it's that "they want people to at least be real."
Barkley, Reilly said, "said that 'I just can't believe in my lifetime that I'm still dealing with these issues.' So he feels really passionate about it, and it's going to be, I think, a very artistic endeavor. I don't want to really speak to the form, but it's going to [be] more of a sort of a documentary effort," rather than a talk show.
"It's going to be very varied in its opinion. It's not just going to be sort of a let's-talk-about-race and have a Crossfire concept," Reilly said.
There might even be romance.
"The millennial generation is the first truly multicultural generation. The complexion of our society has changed, and so he's going to talk a lot about just relationships, and falling in love, and what that means" now, Reilly said.
"He is the most entertaining and captivating guy," he said. "This is very tricky territory...but he's got the cachet and he's beloved enough across the board to actually put this out there, and do it in a way that I think will be both entertaining and illuminating, as opposed to just some sort of school lesson."
Here's how TNT is describing the show in press materials:
"NBA legend and Inside the NBA analyst Charles Barkley has had enough. The America that he knew has lost its way, becoming mired in partisan politics, social divides and entrenched corporate interests. Now he hopes to get to the root of the problem in the new limited-run series The Race Card. TNT has ordered six hour-long episodes of the show, with plans to launch in early 2017.
"In The Race Card, Charles Barkley wants to bust up the echo chamber mentality that so often has people retreating to corners of the like-minded, where views are reinforced and ideas are distorted into angry, unexamined groupthink conclusions. Each week, Barkley will take on the rapidly calcifying positions around today’s hot-button topics. He will seek out the sharpest and most varied viewpoints from today’s cultural leaders and tastemakers. He will then challenge and probe those ideas, even trying them out on himself.
"No idea presented on The Race Card will be left in the abstract. Barkley will put ideas on their feet, with real-world proof-of-concept tests that will engage people and expose the truth behind their closely held beliefs. In the end, Barkley will reach his own conclusions guided only by his own wits and common-sense wisdom.
"'We as Americans never discuss the issue of race in this country and how it impacts everything in our lives until something bad happens," Barkley said. "I see this project as a way to talk about race, class and cultural differences and challenge everyone's status quo.'"
The concept of a divided America -- as illustrated by the recent political conventions -- seems to have caught Hollywood's attention. On Saturday, the premium cable channel Epix announced a new documentary series, America Divided, that's being produced by Norman Lear (All in the Family), Shonda Rhimes (Scandal) and Common whose stories will look at "inequality in education, housing, health care, labor, criminal justice and the political system."
Lear, who turned 94 last week, also serves as a correspondent for a story about the housing crisis in New York City.