Every popular culture is a reflection of its era, but the mirror is usually warped. On television and especially in film, we can see America’s dysmorphias — its obsessions with whiteness, straightness, thinness, violence, and masculinity — better than we can see ourselves in them. But one of the most prominent TV trends in 2016 was working toward smoothing out the looking glass so that many more of us could see our likenesses in it. And by telling more tales about more types of people, television extended its Golden Era by another year and held on to its perch as the most vital cultural medium of the moment while reassuring nearly everyone that they have stories, experiences, contexts, and aesthetics that matter.
This is what diversity can do — and why it’s so crucial that we have pop culture that reflects America in its mind-boggling multiplicities. And now that we’ve established the moral rightness of inclusion onscreen, it’s just as important that we continually evolve our ideas about what diversity looks like, lest we neglect intersectionalities and less-visible minorities. TV has in large part stayed excellent in 2016 by doing just that: expanding the battlegrounds on which we fight for progress. And it’s no accident that television has never been better. Inclusive programming has enormous potential to keep TV a preeminent cultural force by telling stories we haven’t or have only rarely seen before.
Take ABC’s Speechless, a family sitcom that premiered as one of the fall season’s instant highlights, and which features a core character, Micah Fowler’s JJ, with cerebral palsy. Even better for the ongoing struggle for people to represent themselves onscreen, Fowler has cerebral palsy himself — a casting choice that’s a win for disabled performers who are tired of seeing able-bodied actors take their jobs by mimicking their conditions. Speechless’s cast and writers are talented enough that any comedy they made would have been pretty good, but the show’s story lines about JJ navigating high school and his overprotective mom (a winsomely pushy Minnie Driver) learning to let her son figure things out on his own make for fresh, informative, and frequently novel situations. JJ’s bids for independence comprise a rare portrait of a disabled youth as a snarky, hormonal teenager — one whose natural desires for youthful rebellion are muddled by his physical reliance on his aide (Cedric Yarbrough) for many day-to-day tasks, including verbal communication. That many viewers now have characters like JJ, his parents, or his siblings to reflect their own lives might well feel like a victory for them. That others like myself, who don’t know any people with visible disabilities, can sympathize with the DiMeos while learning something about, say, the challenges of chasing down school resources, is a win for pop culture.
Let’s give the credit for TV’s diversity where it’s due: to writers and producers and executives who want to give other perspectives a chance to be seen and heard, sure, but also to capitalism. The current glut of programming means, on a certain level, that the more distinct a protagonist is from those we’ve seen before, the more they’ll stand out. This year introduced characters and stage personae — many inspired by real life — that I can’t imagine having seen in my living room a decade ago: Tig Notaro’s grieving lesbian radio host in One Mississippi, the plus-size Chrissy Metz tangled in a romance on This Is Us, Transparent creator Jill Soloway yelling “TOPPLE THE PATRIARCHY!” while picking up her second Emmy, a seven-months-pregnant Ali Wong hilariously explaining the difference between “fancy Asians” and “jungle Asians” during her stand-up special Baby Cobra in the Asian-American Zeitgeist Moment of 2016.
Not coincidentally, it’s never been a better time for women on TV — a fact undivorceable from the reality that feminism has taken over a huge swath of television. Earlier this year, I wrote:
Whatever your preferred facet of feminism, TV’s probably got a show for you. Women of color have Scandal, Insecure, Jane the Virgin, and Orange Is the New Black; queer women have Orange, too, as well as Transparent, Take My Wife, and One Mississippi. There are feminist shows expanding the gendered discourse about body politics (Girls, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer) and sexual violence (Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Hell, we’ve got a superhero drama (Jessica Jones), a musical series (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and at least two meta-comedies (Fleabag and Lady Dynamite) about female mental health.
Women who are also racial or sexual minorities, bigger than a size 2, or older than 40 are still at a representational disadvantage, of course. But there’s no denying that these are high times for “complicated” (read: human-seeming) females onscreen.
Once pretty much entirely absent from the TV screen — and generally missing in discussions about racial diversity overall — this year saw Asian-Americans headlining Fresh Off the Boat, Quantico, Master of None, and The Mindy Project. We also saw ordinary Muslim-Americans in The Night Of, the celebrated web series “Shugs & Fats,” and, most charismatically, Hasan Minhaj on The Daily Show, who spent several segments leading up to the election explaining why Donald Trump posed an existential threat to Americans of Islamic faith. Latinxs admittedly deserve much more than they’re getting in terms of representation, but Jane the Virgin remains one of the best shows on the air, while Narcos, Queen of the South, and America Ferrera on Superstore help showcase pan-American Latinx talent.
Then there are the twin creative forces that have given way to some of the essential shows of 2016: the resurgence of the black sitcom and the ongoing pop-cultural reactions to Black Lives Matter. Atlanta, Insecure, Black-ish, The Carmichael Show, and Survivor’s Remorse — none of which are more than three years old — have led the charge in restoring the black sitcom to its ’90s-era heights. The all-black casts of these often issue-driven shows have also provided some of this year’s best opportunities for intersectional stories, as race is (naturally) discussed alongside identities like gender, class, and queerness.
Similarly, BLM inspired or lent urgent depth to many programs in the year of #OscarsSoWhite. The most celebrated example of this is Black-ish’s “Hope,” an episode that centered on the thorny question of how to explain to black children the acquittal of a white officer who shot an African-American man, as well as what that legal judgment implies about the worth of black lives. But BLM — the most salient political issue of the year before an asteroid began hurtling toward our planet in the form of the Trump presidency — also provided Luke Cage, Queen Sugar, and Orange Is the New Black with their strongest elements this year, while making some of the standout works about race and the justice system (American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and the documentaries The 13th and O.J.: Made in America) that much more relevant. More obliquely but no less pertinently, the slave epics of Underground and the Roots remake proved Faulkner’s saying about history: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It’s unclear how the Trump years — and the reactionary reprisal that was bound to follow the progressive headways of the Obama era — will affect television and pop culture at large. There’s already been talk from ABC’s president, Channing Dungey, about recalibrating programming priorities since Trump’s election. 2016 will probably go down in the history books as the year America decided it would rather deceive itself, lying about how great it used to be, than embrace what it had become: a country where a great many more of us count as people and are freer than ever before to become the individuals we want to be. It’s inevitable, too, that television’s currently unsustainable explosion will lead to an industry contraction and a corresponding reluctance toward risk-taking. So relish TV’s imperfect but still impressive diversity now, even while continuing to demand more. If lean times are indeed ahead, we’ve got to gorge while we can.