How TV Shows Use BBFs To Appear Racially Diverse

On Network TV, there are 27 new shows and nearly all of the main leads are white actors. There is one role on television where minority characters may be on the rise: Black Best Friend. TV critic Eric Deggans says these characters need to be upgraded to well-rounded co-star.

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Network television is trying out its new fall schedule. There are 27 new shows and nearly all of the main leads are white actors. But TV critic Eric Deggans says there is one role on television where minority characters may be on the rise - the black best friend.

ERIC DEGGANS: Black best friends are always there when you need them. Just ask Dr. Zoe Hart, heroine of the new CW series "Hart of Dixie." She's a big city girl just moved to dinky Bluebell, Alabama with no place to stay. Good thing she's about to run into the town's mayor, who also happens to have a house she can rent.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HART OF DIXIE")

RACHEL BILSON ACTOR: (as Dr. Zoe Hart) You're the mayor? Lavon Hayes, the linebacker? Two Super Bowls, five Pro Bowls.

CRESS WILLIAMS: (as Lavon Hayes) Four, actually.

ACTOR: (as Dr. Hart) Well, I rounded up. You got robbed in '06.

WILLIAMS: (as Lavon Hayes) Oh. Lavon Hayes likes your math.

DEGGANS: I didn't invent this term, but I first heard of the black best friend in 2007, used to describe most roles for African-American actresses on television. Think Aisha Tyler on "Ghost Whisperer" or Wanda Sykes in just about every acting role she's ever had. They have little purpose beyond supporting the show's white star. Their specialty: wise advice, delivered with a dash of sass and the occasional finger snap.

This fall, for "Hart of Dixie's" Lavon Hayes, played by Cress Williams, that means easing Hart's transition to the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HART OF DIXIE")

ACTOR: (as Dr. Zoe Hart): You know, you being the mayor here is the first thing about Bluebell that I actually like.

WILLIAMS: (as Lavon Hayes) Thank you.

DEGGANS: For a BBF, this is job one: patiently explaining the magic of life to their white best friend, in ways only a cool, non-white person can. In reality, BBFs are often a diversity head fake - a quick way to make the casts of TV shows look racially diverse, without taking time to create real characters of color with storylines all their own.

And this year, there's so many BBFs around, you can divide them by types. There's the sidekick best black friend, whose entire purpose seems to be echoing and aiding the white star. This is exemplified by Russell Hornsby on NBC's new cop drama "Grimm." He doesn't really get a scene to himself. But Hornsby's Hank Griffin works overtime in the background, razzing Nick for proposing marriage to his girlfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GRIMM")

DAVID GIUNTOLI: (as Nick Burckhardt) Oh, well, I am getting married once, not four times.

RUSSELL HORNSBY: (as Hank Griffin) Oh, you're a happily ever after guy?

GIUNTOLI: (as Nick Burckhardt) Yeah.

DEGGANS: Moving the plot along with details on the victim.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GRIMM")

HORNSBY: (as Hank Griffin) Sylvia Oster, positive ID.

DEGGANS: And providing a handy source for telling forensic details.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GRIMM")

HORNSBY: (as Hank Griffin) Based on the plaster cast, this is the boot we're looking for.

DEGGANS: Look among TVs black best friends and you will see Oscar and Emmy nominees stuck in roles far below their talents. But one BBF who just might shatter this glass ceiling is Maya Rudolph's character on NBC's "Up All Night." Originally written as a boss BBF, Rudolph sparkled enough in the first version of the pilot to see her role changed and expanded.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UP ALL NIGHT")

MAYA RUDOLPH: (as Ava) The love of my life is getting married and it's not to me. And I blame Reagan.

DEGGANS: Now she's an Oprah-style talk show host who employs Applegate as a producer, and she gets something most BBFs never get near: a starring role in her own personal life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UP ALL NIGHT")

RUDOLPH: (as Ava) We were two pop stars in love. As my friend, you should've supported us, but instead you did everything to split us apart.

CHRISTINA APPLEGATE: (as Reagan Brinkley) That is not true.

DEGGANS: So take heart: If Rudolph can make the upgrade from black best friend to well-rounded co-star, so can other BBFs. And once these characters are people rather than plot devices, imagine how much better these shows might become.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

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