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TV right now: What’s up with ‘Atlanta,’ ‘Pitch,’ ‘Insecure’ and more

From the big hits to the darlings to what you may have missed

If there’s anything that came and went too quickly this fall, it was the first season of Atlanta, the excellent FX series from Donald Glover. Atlanta’s Seinfeldian contours and unique aesthetic, not to mention its depiction of a very specific arena of black life, added something hilarious and refreshing to television and quickly made it the overall crown jewel of the 2016 season.

However, we thought it’d be a good idea to stretch and take a look at where we are in fall television since The Roster dropped. Especially as there are a couple of new shows already upon us. Wyatt Cenac’s new alien encounter comedy People of Earth debuted on Halloween on TBS and Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party debuted Monday on VH1, just as people were hankering for some counterprogramming levity to distract from 2016’s interminable, apocalyptic hellscape of a presidential election campaign.

But for the most part, shows are well under way, and we know what’s what.

The Hits

Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans in the "There Goes Neighborhood" episode of LETHAL WEAPON

Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans in the “There Goes Neighborhood” episode of LETHAL WEAPON

Ray Mickhaw/FOX

FOX and Shondaland continue to dominate with black viewers. Earlier this month, USA Today published a list of the most popular scripted shows among black people. Empire still reigns supreme, capturing 8.8 million black viewers each week, while Lethal Weapon (second), Rosewood (sixth), and Pitch (seventh) — all Fox shows — also made the list. Meanwhile, How to Get Away With Murder ranks fourth, and Grey’s Anatomy is eighth. The list was dominated by the broadcast networks, save for two slots occupied by OWN’s If Loving You is Wrong (third) and Queen Sugar (fifth).

I’ve had a lot to say about Queen Sugar and its handling of rape culture, but of the top new network dramas, I’m impressed by Pitch’s approach to exploring fame and ambition. If nothing else, this presidential campaign has shown us that it takes a certain kind of woman to break a glass ceiling without sustaining a few cracks in her own armor. At 69, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has had a lifetime to develop an exoskeleton that would rival an armadillo’s. But Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) is being thrust into the role of gender mascot and trailblazer while she’s still trying to define herself and what she wants, at an age when most of her cohorts are probably still buying extra-long twin sheets for their dorm rooms. Being the first woman to pitch in Major League Baseball is an enormous amount of pressure to heap on the shoulders of one very young woman, so last week’s episode, when Ginny finally cracked, felt inevitable, yes, but also incredibly humanizing.

Critical Darlings

Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae

Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Both Insecure and Atlanta have offered astute social critiques of issues surrounding race and identity. Through its main characters Issa (played by Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji), Insecure has amplified the irritations, dangers and general microaggression that come with being the only black person at work, or worse, being the only black person until you’re asked to play Black Translator when a second one is brought on board.

Atlanta, meanwhile, ended its first season with its three main protagonists, Earn (Glover), Paper Boi/Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), and Darius (Keith Stanfield) witnessing Atlanta police shoot and kill an unarmed man who was running away from law enforcement.

“I think part of us wanted to show that this is an everyday occurrence when you’re black,” Atlanta writer Stefani Robinson said in a recent interview. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility for this to happen, and for you to just go on with your life, which is kind of how it is. That’s why I don’t think we made it super special, because when you’re living life in real-time, as a black person, living in that economic class, it isn’t necessarily a highlight if it’s happening so often, you know? … It shows Alfred trusting his gut right beforehand. He knows something’s off, and he knows something’s wrong, because he’s grown up in a neighborhood where this happens often … Which is like a spidey-sense that you don’t — I don’t think a larger population of America knows that black people of this country have had to cultivate.”

Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Zazie Beetz as Van.

Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Zazie Beetz as Van.

Guy D'Alema/FX

Though they’re two of the most buzzed-about new shows of the fall season, neither Insecure nor Atlanta cracked USA Today’s list of the top 10 scripted series most popular with black Americans. Atlanta is not doing poorly; the show kicked off with 1.8 million viewers, making it the best-rated cable comedy since the 2013 premiere of Inside Amy Schumer. There’s more concern for Insecure, though. While the show’s debut netted 1.1 million viewers across streaming and on-demand platforms thanks to HBO’s decision to release it early, and for free, the show has struggled to reach that apex again, hovering somewhere between 340,000-470,000 viewers. Recently, Rae announced that the entire first season of Insecure would be available on HBO Now, the network’s standalone streaming service.

Ratings aside, I’ve enjoyed the aesthetics of Atlanta and Insecure, both of which owe their house styles to directors new to television in Hiro Murai and Melina Matsoukas. Murai and Matsoukas are both well-respected music video directors — Glover had worked with Murai previously on music videos and Matsoukas is perhaps best known for her collaborations with Beyoncé, Solange, and Lady Gaga.

“She’s just visually astounding and is so astute in terms of knowing exactly what she wants,” Rae said last month in New York. “I’ve never seen anybody be so specific in terms of their own vision, but also collaborative where your opinion can only enrich what she’s about to do. I love her take on things, she just has an elevated taste and is also just mad fun.”

Stuff You Might Have Missed

  • If you’ve been watching Showtime’s Shameless this season, then you know the show has been heavily portraying an interracial polyamorous relationship between Kev (Steve Howey), Veronica (Shanola Hampton), and Svetlana (Isidora Goreshter). It’s notable for a few reasons. It’s a rare portrayal of a poly relationship among three working-class people, and we’ve seen how the three are negotiating not just sex, but child-rearing and finances. And when Svetlana’s father, who only speaks Russian, turns up covered in animal dung after being smuggled into the country, the whole situation felt deserving of an Elevators lyrical remix: me and you, your girlfriend and her daddy, too. Alas, the Shameless writers have now thrown that into chaos, as we learned Sunday that Svetlana’s dad is actually her husband. Given that Svetlana married Veronica, in part to avoid getting deported to Russia, well, everything’s about to get much more complicated.
  • The Good Place, NBC’s quirky take on morality and the afterlife, is the most unconventional new show on network television this fall. It stars Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, a maladaptive, self-absorbed, generally terrible person who winds up in the titular Good Place by mistake. It’s been fun to watch Eleanor’s foibles as she tries to learn how to be a good person, and thus, deserve her spot in the Good Place — mainly through ethics lessons with Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). This epic mistake in the universe hasn’t just affected Eleanor, it’s also made an outsize impact on Chidi. Eleanor was supposed to be his soul mate in the afterlife, and the show is currently contending with what to do now that the correct Eleanor Shellstrop — the one who was supposed to wind up in the Good Place — has been rescued from the Bad Place. If you enjoy Harper on this show, he’s also a wonderfully funny voice of conscience in Tahir Jetter’s charming debut film How to Tell You’re a Douchebag.
  • Jane Villanueva of Jane the Virgin is finally (finally!) a virgin no more! In an episode that dealt with all of the emotional baggage Jane had been unwittingly carrying, Jane writers deftly illustrated just how challenging it can be to ditch the attitudes and norms that might prevent you from enjoying sex, even after you’ve lost your V-card.

Diversity Check-in

The most astonishing news this fall regarding diversity in television had to be Variety’s publication of the salaries of television’s top actors, actresses, and hosts. The report revealed a shameful pay gap between white actors and actors of color, especially those on top shows. There’s not just a racial pay gap, but a gender one as well. Tracee Ellis Ross reportedly earns $80,000 per episode for black-ish. Her television husband and co-star, Anthony Anderson, gets $100,000. Both earn less than Last Man Standing’s Tim Allen ($250,000 per episode) despite the fact that black-ish gets better ratings.

While there are all sorts of black stories and black faces on television this season, all is not perfect, calm, and equitable within Hollywood — far from it. Onscreen representation of Asians and Latinos — especially in lead roles — is still woefully anemic, despite the presence of shows such as Jane the Virgin, Fresh off the Boat, Dr. Ken and Master of None. While Transparent returned with a sterling third season this fall and Queen Sugar is among the shows that have introduced new gay characters, GLAAD’s annual Where We Are on TV report did not necessarily spell uniformly good news for gay representation. While the number of transgender characters across broadcast, cable, and streaming has more than doubled, representations of lesbians on broadcast and cable television have fallen, in part due to characters being killed off.

The Directors Guild of America also released its annual look at diversity this fall, which examined the 2015-16 TV season. There was a 14 percent increase in the number of episodes of television directed by women and a 13 percent jump in the number of television episodes directed by ethnic minorities. White men still disproportionately dominate television directing, and that is unlikely to change, considering that they’re still afforded more chances to break into the business than anyone else. Men made up 81 percent of all first-time television directors, and whites were 86 percent of those who directed an episode of television last year. There may be some movement next year. Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg announced that season two of the Marvel show would be directed entirely by women, following in the footsteps of Ava DuVernay, who as executive producer, made the same move with the first season of Queen Sugar.

Also worth noting: The Wrap recently published a study on the viewerships of shows with the highest and lowest median incomes. This is important information when it comes to which shows are able to charge a premium for ad slots. Ratings are one part of the equation, but the other is the amount of disposable income a show’s audience has. Given that USA Today found, as it said, that television’s diversity progress is motivated by money, this data takes on added importance, especially when considering the fragmented nature of Peak TV. At $85,300, Modern Family draws an audience with the highest median annual household income. Empire draws an audience with the lowest: $46,400.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.