Telling Stories Sans Stereotype

Genera+ion on HBO Max
HBO Max’s Genera+ion follows a group of diverse teens growing up in a conservative community. (Image credit: HBO Max)

The themes of diversity and inclusion resonated throughout several virtual panels during the opening week of CTAM’s portion of the Television Critics Association Winter Tour.

The first of a scheduled two weeks of virtual presentations from more than a dozen cable networks and streaming services showcased a number of new programs featuring diverse casts and producers. Network executives, producers and talent said the shows continue the industry’s efforts to offer more on-screen representation that reflects the diverse audiences that watch television.

The need to create more diverse on-air content for Hallmark Channel was the message conveyed during the network’s TCA executive panel, led by recently appointed Crown Media Family Networks president and CEO Wonya Lucas, as well as executive VP of programming and network publicity Michelle Vicary. Hallmark — which has been criticized for not featuring diverse characters in lead roles in its original movies — is now moving toward providing more diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera, according to Lucas. 

“The significant achievements made in the D&I space in 2020 laid the groundwork for us to branch out in our storytelling to approach the complexity of what it means to love and be a family in a more authentic, varied and inclusive way,” Lucas said. “We continue to strive to defy common stereotypes and give our characters more depth and dimension … to more broadly represent the human condition.”

Lucas took over in July after former Crown Media Family Networks president and CEO Bill Abbott stepped down last January, following the network’s controversial move to pull a commercial featuring a kissing scene involving a same-sex couple. She referenced as an example of the network’s increasingly diverse slate a 2020 original holiday film — Christmas Comes Twice — which featured a biracial female astrophysicist as a lead character. Vicary also cited the movie Mixed Up in the Mediterranean, debuting Feb. 20 and featuring Hallmark’s first gay lead character.

“I would say probably 25% of our movies had diversity in them,” Vicary said.

Lifetime, National Geographic, HBO, OWN  and other networks touted new shows with characters that defy stereotypes often associated with characters of color. HBO Max’s Genera+ion, which follows a diverse group of high schoolers testing the boundaries of race and sexual identity in a conservative community, looks to depict today’s teens in an authentic way, according to 19-year-old executive producer Zelda Barnz. 

“Something that’s real and authentic is intersectionality, and the people who identify across the gender and sexuality spectrum, and with different races and different ethnicities,” Barnz said of the show, which debuts March 11. “We drew a lot of inspiration from authenticity and real-world influence when we were writing and creating the show.”

OWN’s new legal drama Delilah provides a rare look at an African-American lawyer and the unique challenges she faces from a race and gender perspective, said lead actress Maahra Hill. The series, from Greenleaf producer Craig Wright, premieres later this year. 

“I think she reflects Black women and Black America in ways that we haven’t seen on a consistent basis,” Hill said. “I do think that she’s an accurate reflection of women who are trying to balance their lives, as well as fight for things that are meaningful to them in their life.”

HBO’s revival of In Treatment also features an African-American female lead in Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black), in the role of the therapist originated by Gabriel Byrne. Executive producer Jennifer Schuur said the new series moves the original show — which ran from 2008-2010 — into the present day and deals with issues prevalent in today’s culture. 

“We have an opportunity to say some very important things about our particular time,” Schuur said. “We have racial justice movements and the Me Too movement happening; we talk about toxic masculinity and addiction. We cover a lot of topics all set in the present day.” 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.