On the epic finale of Empire, record mogul Lucious Lyon announced that performers — including Patti LaBelle, Rita Ora, and Snoop Dogg — would donate a percentage of their fees from a benefit concert to Black Lives Matter.
It was another example of how — in the shadow of the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, particularly in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. — current events have seeped into prime time.
Television shows often exist in a world in which current events rarely have an effect on the plots. The last three years of Friends’ 10-year run took place in a post-9/11 Manhattan, although you wouldn’t know it from watching the show.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, did work their way into the plots of several other shows, including the emergency-responder drama Third Watch, which spent a good deal of its third season discussing the aftermath of the attacks. Law & Order, The West Wing, and even South Park used 9/11 in story lines.
Now TV is tackling the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner with both fictional and reality shows commenting on these issues, with varying results.
On March 5, ABC’s hit show Scandal aired an episode titled “The Lawn Chair.” It was uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great art.
In it, 17-year-old Brandon Parker is shot by Officer Jeff Newton in his neighborhood, minutes away from the White House. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is hired as a fixer for the local police department. But Brandon’s father refuses to be placated. He sits in a lawn chair above his dead son’s body, armed with a rifle, demanding justice.
Social media indicated viewers, specifically black viewers, were heavily invested in “The Lawn Chair.” It aired the day after the Department of Justice announced it would not prosecute Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for shooting Brown, an unarmed black teenager. For many, it was too much, too soon, and they shared their unhappiness on Twitter.
But series creator Shonda Rhimes and her room of writers chose to face, head-on, the disenfranchisement, racial profiling, and suppression of the black community. Rhimes and episode writer Zahir McGhee made sure every side of the debate was heard, including the views of Officer Newton (Michael Welch), protesters, and (most viscerally) parents suffering the loss of children in clashes with police. It was every Ferguson debate we’ve heard, filtered through these characters. The best part was that no one interrupted anyone else.
Olivia, who will put it all on the line for her client, finds herself in a dilemma: She’s hired by a side of a debate she does not agree with, and her actions belie that dilemma.
The episode ends with the slow zipping up of the body bag holding the murdered Brandon.
It’s impossible for one episode of television to encapsulate the layers of controversy surrounding Ferguson. And yes, Scandal’s ending was too tidy, with a clear-cut good guy and bad guy, against a reality that tends to be much more muddled. The bad guy gets arrested. The father, despite being a black man pointing his rifle at the police, lives. And the president of the United States consoles him for his loss.
Nevertheless, Scandal handled the issues surrounding Ferguson with delicacy and strength.
— Sofiya Ballin
Premiering the same day as Scandal’s “The Lawn Chair,” American Crime is a nuanced portrait of race, viewed through a home invasion that leaves a white couple dead.
Creator John Ridley, who won an Oscar for the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, has not been shy about talking about how the events in Ferguson have influenced imagery in American Crime, especially in terms of the “Hands up, don’t shoot” protest chants that have been prominent in promotional material.
Under a less nuanced eye, the imagery could come off as heavy-handed, but Ridley, who penned the first three episodes that have aired on ABC, has fleshed out his ensemble cast, from those accused of the crime to the parents of the deceased and beyond.
— Molly Eichel
“The Good Wife”
Well, props for trying.
In the Jan. 11 episode “The Debate,” CBS’ The Good Wife also tried to channel tensions in real life. It came via a debate between main character Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) and her opponent, Frank Prady (David Hyde Pierce), in the race for Illinois state’s attorney. The episode turned sour immediately when a title card announced the episode had been written before the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island.
The Good Wife is no stranger to taking real issues and adapting them for their world. But “The Debate” came off as preachy when it wanted to be deep. The police shooting death of a man named Cole Willis was filtered through the white privilege of Alicia and Frank, who at one (cringe-worthy) point explain their positions on the Willis shooting to a lineup of hotel workers, all of whom are working class, many of whom are minorities.
Worse, the episode turned on Alicia’s ability to capitalize politically on the shooting to benefit herself and her husband Peter (Chris Noth), the governor of Illinois. Rather than a discussion of race, it felt like an embarrassing episode of “white-splaining” from a show that is usually more nuanced when it comes to political matters.
— Molly Eichel
“How to Get Away With Murder”
Professor and lawyer Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) sends her lover, Detective Nate Lahey (Billy Brown) to prison for a crime he didn’t commit in an attempt to save her students from catching heat for the murder of her husband. Michaela (Aja Naomi King), one of the students Keating is trying to protect, watches as Lahey is placed in cuffs and escorted out of the courtroom. She looks at Keating in disbelief and utters three words that had Twitter on fire: “But he’s black … ”
For some, the line was confusing. It’s awful for any innocent man to go to prison, regardless of color, right?
But Michaela’s shock was a subtle way of telling America that the justice system is already imbalanced. In sending an innocent black man to prison, Keating was tipping the scale even further and perpetuating the image of black men as criminals. Michaela’s response held even more weight in the light of the constant reminder, post-Ferguson, that black lives matter.
— Sofiya Ballin
“Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s”
The OWN reality show normally deals in the tasty, centering on the family-owned Sweetie Pie’s restaurant in St. Louis. But in a March 6 episode, owner Miss Robbie worries about her son’s decision to join in the Ferguson protests.
“This is happening right in our backyard. It’s not like I can ignore it,” Norman tells his mother, who is quick to rebuke her son, reminding him of her experiences during the Civil Rights Movement.
“When I was out there, they were lynching people,” she says.
The episode demonstrates a fascinating dichotomy between how different generations experience and react to recent events, highlighting how much has changed and how much stayed the same.
— Molly Eichel
“Iyanla: Fix My Life”
Mere weeks after Brown was shot and killed, before the bloodstains could even be erased from the concrete, Iyanla Vanzant, the spiritual life counselor on OWN’s Iyanla: Fix My Life, went to fix Ferguson for a very special episode.
Vanzant met with residents, elected officials, protestors, Brown’s relatives, and Ferguson’s police chief at the time, Thomas Jackson.
Skeptics called the episode exploitative, especially because the show was scheduled to return from a Season 4 hiatus weeks after the special aired — claims Vanzant swiftly denied.
Either way, it was way too soon. When it comes to grief counseling, Vanzant is great. But what she tried to accomplish in Ferguson could have been accomplished later, without the cameras. And when it comes to “fixing” race relations in Ferguson, Vanzant should have sat this one out.
— Sofiya Ballin