How TV Shows Use BBFs To Appear Racially Diverse

Oct 11, 2011
Originally published on January 6, 2012 6:05 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Network television is trying out its new fall schedule. There are 27 new shows and nearly all of the main leads are white actors. But TV critic Eric Deggans says there is one role on television where minority characters may be on the rise - the black best friend.

ERIC DEGGANS: Black best friends are always there when you need them. Just ask Dr. Zoe Hart, heroine of the new CW series "Hart of Dixie." She's a big city girl just moved to dinky Bluebell, Alabama with no place to stay. Good thing she's about to run into the town's mayor, who also happens to have a house she can rent.

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DEGGANS: I didn't invent this term, but I first heard of the black best friend in 2007, used to describe most roles for African-American actresses on television. Think Aisha Tyler on "Ghost Whisperer" or Wanda Sykes in just about every acting role she's ever had. They have little purpose beyond supporting the show's white star. Their specialty: wise advice, delivered with a dash of sass and the occasional finger snap.

This fall, for "Hart of Dixie's" Lavon Hayes, played by Cress Williams, that means easing Hart's transition to the South.

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DEGGANS: For a BBF, this is job one: patiently explaining the magic of life to their white best friend, in ways only a cool, non-white person can. In reality, BBFs are often a diversity head fake - a quick way to make the casts of TV shows look racially diverse, without taking time to create real characters of color with storylines all their own.

And this year, there's so many BBFs around, you can divide them by types. There's the sidekick best black friend, whose entire purpose seems to be echoing and aiding the white star. This is exemplified by Russell Hornsby on NBC's new cop drama "Grimm." He doesn't really get a scene to himself. But Hornsby's Hank Griffin works overtime in the background, razzing Nick for proposing marriage to his girlfriend.

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DEGGANS: Moving the plot along with details on the victim.

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DEGGANS: And providing a handy source for telling forensic details.

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DEGGANS: Look among TVs black best friends and you will see Oscar and Emmy nominees stuck in roles far below their talents. But one BBF who just might shatter this glass ceiling is Maya Rudolph's character on NBC's "Up All Night." Originally written as a boss BBF, Rudolph sparkled enough in the first version of the pilot to see her role changed and expanded.

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DEGGANS: Now she's an Oprah-style talk show host who employs Applegate as a producer, and she gets something most BBFs never get near: a starring role in her own personal life.

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DEGGANS: So take heart: If Rudolph can make the upgrade from black best friend to well-rounded co-star, so can other BBFs. And once these characters are people rather than plot devices, imagine how much better these shows might become.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

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