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From gay rights to Black Lives Matter: why network TV suddenly got serious

Shows such as When We Rise and Shots Fired are introducing social issues into a schedule filled with escapism but can the Big Four ever take on premium cable?

By Charles Bramesco / The Guardian / Monday 27 February 2017 12.10 EST


On a reputable college campus, a young undergrad comes forward and names multiple star football players as her rapists. A scandal instantly erupts, complete with media dressing down the university administration, coaches confessing to cover-ups, and the survivor’s name dragged through the muck. It’s a regrettably familiar story, but for once, it’s not the latest above-the-fold headline from the daily news; it’s called Controversy, and it may appear on Fox’s programming schedule sometime soon.

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Fox ordered the pilot just last month and cast Whiplash actor Austin Stowell last week, marking the latest in a string of big four network series with concepts built around hot-button issues. This week sees the premiere of When We Rise on ABC, a well-pedigreed docudrama series about the fight for queer rights from Milk writer and LGBT advocate Dustin Lance Black, with additional star power from Guy Pearce and Whoopi Goldberg, to name just two of the ensemble. Fox tackles Black Lives Matter and the police violence epidemic next month with Shots Fired, a 10-part miniseries about a North Carolina town rocked by a racially charged shooting. ABC’s Black-ish has consistently engaged with the uglier aspects of the black experience in America, and touched a nerve last year with an episode that also dealt with police brutality on black bodies. In an era of safe spaces, network TV’s preparing for some difficult discussions.

Ever since HBO declared themselves separate from TV, premium cable has been the province of the bold and the envelope-pushing. It’s not as if the major networks are only waking up to the notion of socially conscious writing now – Norman Lear built an empire around shows willing to speak to the most pressing matters of his day, from race relations on Sanford and Son to abortion on Maude. But without the content restrictions of the major networks and their fickle advertisers, shows on HBO and Showtime could more freely explore such thorny subjects. On networks, they were usually constrained to “very special episodes”, where they could be handled in a contained, often overtly preachy capacity. Law and Order: SVU, for instance, has made a habit of ripping their plotlines from headlines. When they ran their Black Lives Matter episode in October 2015, however, audiences reacted negatively to the show’s cursory treatment of its sensitive material.

In this era of social unrest, audiences have begun to demand art that speaks more frankly and directly to major concerns. Programs such as When We Rise and Shots Fired, as well as some shows infiltrating basic cable (Ryan Murphy recently announced that the next season of American Horror Story would detail the waking nightmare of the 2016 presidential election), foreground their issues instead of writing around them. As much as network offerings have touched upon the major crises of their time, that’s been the full extent – touching upon, and little more. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter about Black-ish’s Black Lives Matter episode, creator Kenya Barris said: “Well, my hopes are that it starts a great conversation and, at the same time, makes people laugh and think. My fear is: I don’t what to piss anyone off. I don’t want to politicize the show … It’s politically adjacent.”

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With a run time beyond a single episode and a firmer commitment to their causes, this upcoming wave of issue-driven series will be able to actually have the conversations that other shows aim to start. Any subject worth delving into contains far more complexity and nuance than could be conceivably squeezed into a half-hour, and these new shows can cover a wider breadth of discourse. Dustin Lance Black expressed the heightened ambition of When We Rise in a recent interview with the New York Times, saying: “We did not create this series for half a nation. I believe that most Americans, including Americans who voted for Donald Trump, will fall in love with these real-life families and absolutely relate to their stories when they tune in … We are in a period of backlash right now. I would give anything for this to be less topical. But this series shows [queer] history is a pendulum, not a straight line.”

Partisan times call for television unafraid to make a principled stand, and the box-office success of politically charged films such as Hidden Figures suggests that there may be a little money in it too. What executives once considered too touchy for the broad platform of network TV, viewers have now declared too vital to go unremarked upon. Perhaps audiences have grown more daring, or they’re just tired of the mealy-mouthed talk-arounds filling their airwaves. Either way, network TV – the most popular, readily accessible art form – has doubled down on its utility as a public forum. Bring the burning questions of the day home, and they can no longer be ignored.

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