There are three subjects one is supposed to avoid when making conversation in polite company: politics, religion, and money. This list can be expanded to include sex, bodily functions, and the appearances of others (“Has she had work done? Has he?”) when the company you're keeping is even more unfamiliar and refined. Among your true friends, however, there’s supposed to be a circle of trust. You’re supposed to be able to discuss life’s more crass, indecent, and politically incorrect topics. Even if your friends are of different races and ethnicities than you. Did that last statement just make you uncomfortable — perhaps even cause you to cringe a little? Then you’re ready to hear what Truth Be Told’s co-executive producers DJ Nash and Will Packer have to say about diversity and interracial marriages on television today. Truth Be Told premieres October 16 on NBC, which bills the show as, “A new comedy about two diverse couples for whom no topic is off-limits.” (Catchy, isn't it?) Mitch is white (although the actor who plays him, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, is half Asian), and is married to Tracy (Vanessa Lachey), who is of Filipino and Caucasian heritage. Their best friends, Russell (Tone Bell) and Angie (Bresha Webb), are Black. When we first learned of the show’s premise, it actually did make us a little nervous. A whole sitcom built around the idea that when two people of different races or ethnicities are in a couple, cringe-worthy moments are bound to ensue? There have certainly been interracial and interethnic couples on television in the past, but not shows that specifically focused on the complexities of these relationships. One of TV’s first and most memorable interethnic couples was, of course, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy (1951-1957). They almost didn’t make it on TV. “CBS and its sponsor, Philip Morris cigarettes, were adamantly opposed to this. They said that the American public would not accept Desi as the husband of a red-blooded American girl.” Kathleen Brady, one of Ball’s biographers, told NPR in February 2014. NPR went on to note that The Jeffersons (1975-1985), a spinoff of All in the Family (1971-1979), "was considered daring in the early ’70s" because it prominently features an interracial couple, Helen (Roxie Roker) and Tom Willis (Franklin Cover). Their intermarriage is often a topic of conversation on the show, with George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) frequently expressing his dislike of the Willises. Today, we’re more likely to hear about the experience of interracial marriage from the TV couples themselves. On Happy Endings (2011-2013), Jane (Eliza Coupe) and Brad (Damon Wayans, Jr.) frequently talk about their relationship in an almost laudatory way, praising each other for daring to marry outside their race. They do it in a manner that almost crosses the line between humorous and offensive (and I say this as a devoted Happy Endings fan, but the way they fetishized each other and Brad’s tokenism in their friend group goes a little overboard). On Modern Family, Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) also tend to veer toward stereotypes, with Gloria frequently chalking up outbursts of anger to being Latina.
Still, it’s better when the fact that these couples are interethnic or interracial is directly addressed, rather than ignored. Multiracial families are increasingly the norm in the United States. The proof is also visible on non-scripted series such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians (2007-present). Kim Kardashian and Kanye West (you knew they were going to come up here!) represent the ever-changing tapestry of diverse backgrounds in American families. Some scripted shows, however, choose to go the route of ignoring the fact that a couple is interracial until it becomes awkward to watch. “Race difference is an elephant in the room, instead of a window into a new experience. It's time for network TV to fully tap the real dramatic potential of these couples, and let them talk about the issues we're already tackling in the real world,” Eric Deggans wrote on NPR in March 2011, while speaking about Crosby (Dax Shepard) and Jasmine (Joy Bryant) from Parenthood (2010-2015), who never seemed to address the struggles an interracial couple might encounter head-on. “TV Comedies Welcome Fresh Voices, New Perspectives in Diversity Boom,” declared a Variety headline in June 2015. The accompanying piece celebrated shows that premiered during the 2014-2015 season, like Jane the Virgin, Empire, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, and Transparent, that not only got everyone talking about diversity on television, but were “damn good.” "Those shows are so important...[they] paved the way for us, so a huge tip of the hat there,” DJ Nash told Refinery29 in a recent interview. Truth Be Told is based on his life: His wife is Korean and his best friend is Black. “I’m this white dude in a diverse world… There’s a way that my friends, who are from very diverse, different backgrounds — not just racially, but socioeconomically, career-wise, gender, sexual orientation — talk to each other. We give each other the benefit of the doubt, you can actually talk about a topic in a way that, if you were at a party and you just met someone, you wouldn’t be allowed to, and even if you were sort of surface friends with someone." Packer and Nash insist the show wasn’t retrofitted for the networks' post-Black-ish and -Empire call for diversity, but rather, arose organically from Nash's personal conversations and experiences.“That’s not why this show came to be… This show is diverse, and it’s getting a lot of attention because we haven’t seen that in network television in the way that we are doing it,” Nash said. “I think audiences have been open to it, [and] that, as an industry, we’re behind,” Packer added. Still, some of the story lines are sure to ruffle feathers — especially ones dealing with interracial relationships. Packer and Nash are ready. “We’re doing an episode where Angie talks about how, when she finds out that her husband had dated a white woman, that’s a bump for her, and it bothers her that it’s a bump for her. To deal with that topic in a way that feels 2015...that was not an easy story to break,” Nash says. “If we were doing it just for a Black audience, it would be easy, and if it we were doing it just for just a white audience, I could hand-feed it a little bit more.” “That is something really specific for African-American women. We wanted to make sure that we got that right, and that we were pitch-perfect with that tone,” Packer said. “You can’t overstate the care that’s needed and the desire that you have to have to get something like that right, especially in a comedy. At the end of the day, we’re dealing with these things in a light and funny way, and these are some of the topics that people will go on the internet and talk about anonymously, with vitriol. We want to do it right, but keep it light.”
Their intentions may be good, but not all critics are buying it. Some excerpts from reviews: "NBC's only new fall comedy tries much too hard to provoke," according to The Boston Globe. "Black people and white people can be best friends, and that's the truth. Apparently, however, that friendship can't be funny, or so Truth Be Told (which formerly had the equally generic title People Are Talking) easily convinces us," wrote The Saint Louis Dispatch. "The show wants to be about how people discuss political and social issues when they're in private company. That's a fine central nugget for a show, but this is yet another sitcom where nobody speaks like a human being but, instead, like a series of catchphrase-generating machines," Todd VanDerWerff noted at Vox. It's hard to hit the right notes while delving into issues like hiring a "hot nanny" of indeterminate Asian ethnicity when Mitch is married to a woman of indeterminate Asian ethnicity. The obvious way for this story line to proceed is for Mitch not to hire this particular person because he's worried about temptation. Truth Be Told takes a much more uncomfortable approach. Mitch doesn't want to hire this "hot nanny" because people will think he has "a thing" for Asian women. "The fifth character on the show is Mitch’s white guilt," Nash said. Again, Nash and Packer's intentions for the show seem to be coming from a good place, especially since most of the plot lines emerge from real-life scenarios they've encountered. Even if Truth Be Told doesn’t take off the way its creators hope, it’s still advancing the groundwork laid by Ball and Arnaz. Diversity on TV isn’t a trend, and interracial and interethnic marriage isn’t something that should be relegated to neighbors and secondary characters or guest stars. The more we see it portrayed on television by characters who acknowledge and discuss its complexities, the more "normal" it becomes onscreen. Some of you are probably shaking your head at this because it’s part of your everyday existence, but remember how slow television is to accept change. That’s probably the real truth that needs to be told here.