Three decades after “The Cosby Show,” families of color are back on network television

It’s been a while.
It’s been a while.
Image: AP Photo
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LOS ANGELES—The Cosby Show was TV’s top-rated show for five years in the 1980s, but in the three decades since then, the broadcast networks largely stopped making sitcoms that accurately represented and reflected the diverse makeup of their audiences.

That is changing this year, thanks primarily to ABC, which is rolling out three sitcoms centered around minority families this season: black-ish (one of fall’s best new comedies, about an African-American family that includes Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne), Cristela (stand-up comic Cristela Alonzo’s series inspired by her Mexican-American family), and Fresh Off the Boat (about a ’90s Asian-American family relocating from Washington DC’s Chinatown to suburban Orlando, Florida).

A scene from “black-ish.”
A scene from “black-ish.”
Image: Photo/Adam Taylor for ABC

In doing so, the network is finally beginning to correct the embarrassing dearth of sitcoms featuring non-white families. “If you look at shows now that seem to lack diversity, they actually seem dated, because America doesn’t look like that anymore,” ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee told reporters at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. “People want to see voices that reflect the America that they know. … That’s not so much diversity as authenticity.”

As just as Cosby Show did 30 years ago, these three shows focus on themes that viewers of all ethnicities can easily connect with. “We love having a diverse slate, but we think these shows are deeply relatable. [When I watch them], I am one of those families,” said Lee, who admits that the new shows will hopefully appeal to international audiences as well. “We have a chance to resonate in the US and beyond. But make no bones about it, these are American stories, all of them.”

At the same time, these series also highlight their characters’ unique cultural backgrounds. Cristela, for instance, doesn’t shy away from scenes in which its characters speak in Spanish. “My goal is to represent the family I grew up with and that I have, and that does include speaking Spanish. Spanish is my first language so of course, it’s a very important part of the show,” said Cristela star and co-creator Alonzo. “Everybody in the show is based on someone I know, and my goal was always to honor them and make sure they felt like they were well-represented.”

The producers behind these new series are at a loss to explain why Hollywood has largely ignored them over the past several decades. “There was a time when it was no big deal to have black sitcoms on network TV,” like The Jeffersons, Good Times, and The Cosby Show, said black-ish executive producer Larry Wilmore. “And then it got segregated. It seemed like they were all on The CW and UPN. … I called it the Negro Leagues.” And now that these shows have finally returned to broadcast networks, “we’re a novelty all of a sudden!”

Which is why even ABC’s Lee, who is leading the network charge towards presenting diverse families, knows that he—and his broadcast peers—still have a long way to go. “We don’t think we’re there yet,” said Lee. “But we’re very proud of [these] shows.”