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Fall TV's Diversity Report Card: Robin Thede Grades The New Shows

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    Robin Thede is so sick of firsts — specifically, when they're in relation to television. She doesn’t want to hear that Viola Davis was the first Black woman to ever win an Emmy for being the lead actress in a drama. Not when it's happening in 2015. She definitely doesn’t want to read that Aziz Ansari became the first South Asian actor to ever receive an Emmy nomination for a leading role on a television series in 2016.

    At this point, Thede even wishes she didn’t earn the title of being the first Black head writer of a late night show last year, for the recently canceled The Nightly Show, because, like all these other firsts, it just seems like it should have happened sooner.

    “I still am the only one to hold that title,” Thede tells Refinery29 over the phone, noting there are only eight female writers of color out of 155 writers in late night, and three of them were at The Nightly Show. “That makes me sad. That should not have happened so late in life.”

    But despite Thede being annoyed by the timing of so many recent firsts, she also knows they’re never too late or too little. This year’s Emmys were the most diverse, ever. For the first time in the award show’s 68-year history, all six lead-acting categories featured people of color.

    Aziz Ansari didn’t make history winning Lead Actor in a Comedy, but instead took home the prize for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series with his Master Of None partner Alan Yang for an episode that dealt with being the children of immigrants.

    It was Yang’s speech that seemed to say it all about the work that still needs to be done in the pop culture diversity department. “There's 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there's 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong," Yang said. “We have a long way to go. But I know we can get there.”

    The new lineup of shows premiering this fall includes its own list of firsts — both in front of and behind the camera — and gives hope that next year’s Emmys will push the diversity bar even higher. They may be infuriating, but firsts also mean things are moving in the right direction.

    “I think there are still people in this world that have a very myopic view of how women spend their time or how Black people spend their time, how trans people spend their time,” Thede says. “There are more shows opening up that world to people and saying, ‘Oh, it’s totally normal. Got it.’”

    It’s why Thede shared her totally normal guide to what she’ll be watching this fall with Refinery29: the shows that aren't just diverse, but, in her opinion, are "normalizing" TV to make it look like the world around us. This list includes mostly new shows, but there are some old ones she recommends you catch up on.

    Be warned, there will be more than a few firsts included in this guide, but Thede agrees, all of them are worth celebrating.


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    Queen Sugar (OWN)
    Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

    The drama about three siblings taking over their late father’s sugarcane farm, created by Ava DuVernay for Oprah’s OWN network, stands out to Thede because there is clearly an “unapologetic directive from the beginning of that project to make it for women, by women, about women.” It’s the first series to be completely directed by women.

    “There are men on the show,” Thede says. “But, this is a show that says, 'We don’t need men to create something great. We appreciate their efforts and we’re going to employ them in the capacity that they’re equally qualified, too, but we also aren’t going to be under the thumb of men to create greatness,’ and I think the show’s gotten a lot of really good buzz because of that.”

    Thede said the show’s premiere “ripped out my heart and put it back in several times." She was blown away by the acting, which she called "the finest I've seen."

    "The show is not afraid to be ugly and beautiful and heartbreaking, and doesn't give a crap about how many times you cry during an episode," Thede adds. "You will deal.”

    A lot of that has to do with the power of DuVernay, who Thede calls the “Mother Teresa of creative arts.”

    “With Ava, she’s introducing the world to all of these [female directors, writers, and actresses] who never would have had that access. She’s just so unselfish,” Thede says. “I can’t speak for her, but I can say that to me, it feels like something bigger than her and she knows that.”

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    Atlanta (FX)
    Tuesdays at 10 p.m.

    In Thede’s opinion, Atlanta has become this “mini-Hollywood of the South,” and she’s interested to see Atlanta creator and star Donald Glover’s take on his hometown.

    The dramedy, loosely based on Glover’s own life, looks at a rapper who just got his big break, but it’s really a closer look at a city that’s been underrepresented on television. Glover has said it’s a show designed "to show people how it felt to be Black,” and the way this show looks is a big reason why Thede wanted to watch it.

    “They’re kind of playing with things and trying different things,” Thede says. “It’s showing that Black people and Black shows can take risks. Everything doesn’t have to look the same. It doesn’t have to look Black, it doesn’t have to look white.”

    For Thede, it also feels like a show that is a response to the roles Black people too often play on television. “There’s always this thing that Black people always have to be dressed in loud colors and be talking very loudly and it’s like this is a show that is the antithesis of that stereotype,” she says. “This show seems quiet and reserved, but like, subversive.”

    The FX series is different than anything on TV right now, she added. It “feels unscripted and un-acted, as if I'm just literally watching their lives unfold.”

    Glover didn’t call Atlanta Twin Peaks with rappers” for nothing.

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    Loosely Exactly Nicole (MTV)
    Mondays at 10:30 p.m.

    The title apparently says it all with this new MTV show from comedian Nicole Byer, that is loosely based on real events in her life.

    “This is going to be very much Nicole being Nicole,” Thede confirms. She believes this show from the Girl Code star is a good complement for anyone who loved Inside Amy Schumer. The perfect way to cope while Schumer's on hiatus.

    Byer’s show deals with race and gender in a funny way, but it’s not afraid to get serious. This includes an episode where Byer’s asked by a casting director to give a “Blacker” performance — something that really happened to her.

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    This Is Us (NBC)
    Premieres September 20 at 10 p.m.

    Thede would like to congratulate whomever made the trailer for this NBC series. “When I watched it, I was like, ‘Wait, what is going on?’” she says. “But, like, in a good way.”

    Thede wasn’t the only one who was intrigued by this NBC drama, which tells the story of people born on the same day, since it’s the most watched trailer among the shows premiering this fall.

    While Thede doesn’t know what’s going on, This Is Us reminds her of the Sally Field show Brothers & Sisters, which “everybody loved and was, like, heartbreaking, and I had to stop watching it because it made me cry every week.”

    Thede is definitely planning on having the Kleenex handy for this one and is hoping she will get to use them. “What they’re trying to do is beautiful, so I hope the show is as intense as the trailer,” Thede says. “Whoever cut that trailer is good at cutting trailers. But, I hope that means the show is also good.”

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    Speechless (ABC)
    Premieres September 21 at 8:30 p.m.

    This ABC sitcom is looking to show the lighter side of having a child with disabilities by looking at a mom (Minnie Driver), who will do anything for her son who has cerebral palsy. Unlike the casting in most shows, the actor playing Driver's son, Micah Fowler, really does have cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination.

    “By and large, people with disabilities, physical or otherwise, have zero representation on television; it’s appalling,” Thede says. “It continues the stereotypes and the ostracizing of people with disabilities in society.”

    Thede believes that TV plays a very large part in normalizing — again, there’s that word — the way we look at people who are different from us. She’s also excited to know that this is a comedy, not a drama. “Guess what, people with CT can be funny, too,” Thede says. “We have to stop looking at people as the ‘other,’ so I’m all for shows that can do that.”