A Second Golden Age Of TV?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. In a few minutes, we'll speak with jazz artist Keiko Matsui. We'll talk about her new album "Soul Quest," and we'll hear about her efforts to help out after the tsunami in Japan. That's later.
First, though, we were just talking about the experiences of Latinos in Hollywood with veteran writer Rick Nejera, and that reminds us that even though there are many offerings on cable now, fall is the traditional time that the broadcast networks roll out their new lineups. So here to give us the lowdown on the good, the bad and the ugly in the new fall season is Eric Deggans. We are now happy to call him a colleague of ours at NPR. He just joined us this week from the Tampa Bay Times, where he was media critic for nearly 20 years. Welcome. Welcome back.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Thank you. This is my first appearance on NPR as TV critic...
MARTIN: That's awesome.
DEGGANS: ...Which is very cool.
MARTIN: That's excellent. So jump right in. What are you most excited about this fall season?
DEGGANS: Well, I'm really excited by "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which is this comedy with Andre Braugher and Andy Samberg from "Saturday Night Live."
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "BROOKLYN NINE-NINE")
ANDY SAMBERG: (As Detective Jake Peralta) So Holt's coming on my stakeout now? I made a mixtape with some very explicit rap on it, and now I can't sing along.
TERRY CREWS: (As Sergeant Terry Jeffords) You made a mixtape?
SAMBERG: (As Detective Jake Peralta)Yes, I still listen to cassettes.
DEGGANS: A friend of mine described it as "30 Rock" in a police precinct. It's got that absurdist kind of humor. And Andy Samberg is this cut up detective, who also is really good at his job, and he's constantly trying to show up Andre Braugher, who is a more straight-laced police captain, except, he's also gay. So it's really cool. It's a wonderful combination of flavors.
MARTIN: Which brings me to a question that we often like to talk with you about, which is the whole question of the diversity of casting on these programs.
MARTIN: What are you seeing, you know, overall?
DEGGANS: Well, it's interesting, FOX in particular has this technique that I call the minority co-lead, where they don't necessarily have people of color as the sole stars of shows, but they'll put them next to white co-stars. So there's a show called "Sleepy Hollow" where the actress from "42," who played Jackie Robinson's wife, is paired with a white actor who's playing Ichabod Crane. And then there's also this show called "Almost Human," with Karl Urban and Michael Ealy. They're a cop and an android who fight crime 30 years from now. I guess that's a way to get at diversity, but it also sort of hints at this reluctance to really just let a person of color carry a show as the sole star.
MARTIN: Well, one show where a person of color is carrying the show, even though it is an ensemble cast, as police shows usually are, is on NBC. It's called "Ironside." It's a remake of the show from the 1960s with the same name, and it has an interesting development in the casting. Why don't you tell us about it?
DEGGANS: Sure, sure, and this is a show where Blair Underwood is the sole star. He plays Robert Ironside, and it's a remake of the show from the '70s with Raymond Burr. And he's a police officer - a detective - who loses the use of his legs. He's shot, and he's in a wheelchair. So there's a different kind of diversity there, too. Not only is he African-American, but he's handicapped. And that's another slight trend that we're seeing this fall where...
MARTIN: With Michael J. Fox...
DEGGANS: Michael J. Fox...
MARTIN: ..For example, is back, who, as I think, many people who follow these things know, has been living with Parkinson's disease for some time now. Well, what do you think of the show? I mean, it's really interesting. Both of those shows - there's no consensus from the critics so far on both of those shows. Some shows love "The Michael J. Fox Show," really don't like "Ironside." They think it's tired.
MARTIN: Some people think "The Michael J. Fox Show" is kind of a one-trick pony, and they love "Ironside." Where do you come out on that?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, I haven't seen too many people who like "Ironside." I think it's a pretty derivative show. Like, they have a unique character, and they've surrounded him with a bunch of cliches. But, you're right, there is a real division about "The Michael J. Fox Show." I found it to be kind of a heartwarming family comedy. And also, they don't overdo the jokes about his disability.
MARTIN: So let's jump to HBO now - "Boardwalk Empire." Writers there have added new characters this season, including one played by Jeffrey Wright. His name is Valentin Narcisse. And he - let me just play a short clip for people who haven't seen it. Here he is in a scene with Michael Williams who plays the gangster Chalky White.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")
JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Valentin Narcisse) The Libyan performs in your club. The Libyan serves in your club. But the Libyan may not attend your club.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) Ain't no Libyans here.
WRIGHT: (As Valentin Narciss) You yourself are one.
WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) Well, I'm from Texas.
WRIGHT: (As Valentin Narcisse) Our roots go deeper than that, across oceans, to the mother continent, where all things begin.
MARTIN: Why does he call black people Libyans? I'm just - but...
DEGGANS: Well, first of all, we just got to say, that voice is, like, amazing.
MARTIN: That's true.
DEGGANS: You know, I love Jeffrey Wright. He's an amazing actor.
MARTIN: He's an amazing stage actor too. I think a lot of people know his stage work, but...
MARTIN: So tell me about it. A lot of critics are very excited about this show. Why is that?
DEGGANS: You know, it's a gangster drama, which guys like me, we love this stuff. But what's interesting about this character is that he is something of a black nationalist. I think he sort of believes in the talent-intent idea, that there is a cream of the crop in black society that will come to lead black folks out of their subjugation by white people. And he is manipulating a lot of the characters. He views Chalky White as someone who is ignorant and is not worthy of the position that he has as a leader of the black crime syndicate in Atlantic City, and he's subverting him.
MARTIN: But Jeffrey Wright's also a drug dealer. Is he not?
DEGGANS: He's also a drug...
MARTIN: He's not...
DEGGANS: He's also a drug dealer.
MARTIN: ...W.E.B. Du Bois. Let me just clarify this for people.
DEGGANS: And that has been very controversial. Supposedly, this character is borrowing an office from Marcus Garvey, for example. And they're going to sort of entwine his story with Marcus Garvey's story in the '20s. And some people are going to be upset about having a fictional drug dealer entwined with this hero for some people of black empowerment. But I just think it's a really interesting way of educating people about black folks at that time.
This show's been on quite a while. And this is the first time we're going to see a real look at debates within black culture over how are black people supposed to overcome the subjugation of that time. And what does excellence mean in the black community? And can a drug dealer also be someone who says, you can be smart and sharp and you can beat the white man at his own game, which is really what Valentin Narcisse is trying to do.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, there are obviously some people who are experiencing "Breaking Bad" withdrawal and are still in mourning.
DEGGANS: Can we talk about it? Some people still haven't even seen it.
MARTIN: Too bad. But overall, I mean, I take it that you feel that this is actually kind of a bigger deal than just the end of one show.
MARTIN: I think you're actually concerned about kind of the future excellence overall of television.
DEGGANS: I just think we have reached the end of an era in that - that was started by "The Sopranos" and is going to be book-ended with the end of "Breaking Bad." "Dexter" just went off the air, and "Madmen" is going to go off the air over the next two seasons. And there's a certain kind of quality TV that "The Sopranos" kicked off - the age of the antihero. There are some shows that are poised to kind of take that mantle. "The Bridge" on FX is really great, "Homeland," obviously on Showtime, but what does quality TV look like in the second era? Frankly, I'm excited. I can't wait to see what people come up with.
MARTIN: Well, that's why we're glad you're here. You can tell us all about it.
DEGGANS: You got it.
MARTIN: Tell us more. All right. Eric Deggans is NPR's new TV correspondent and critic, and he joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Eric, thank you.
DEGGANS: Yup, yup.
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