Diane Haithman is contributing to Deadline’s TCA coverage.
Is a spy drama with two black actors as the male-female romantic leads a revolution for network television? At TCA today, the producers of NBC’s upcoming Undercovers, which is just such a show — hemmed and hawed in answering the question that really shouldn’t be a question in 2010 but, well, still is.
First of all, take note that it is incorrect to call stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe African-American players – she’s British, he’s German, and both are of mixed race. But Kodjoe and executive producer Josh Reims both said on today’s show panel that you can’t really step back from the social significance of the casting.
At first, Josh Reims, co-creator/executive producer of Undercovers with J.J. Abrams, downplayed the casting, implying that it was almost coincidental: “When J.J. and I wrote the script originally, we decided we wanted to write it like the [1940 movie] Philadelphia Story, with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant … but they’re dead so we didn’t hire them,“ he joked. “[We said] Let’s just see every possible incarnation of person [so we won’t end up with] the same people we’ve seen on TV a million times…Boris and Gugu came in, and we sort of knew immediately, these are them. We didn’t go out of our way to say we are hiring two black people to be the leads of our show, but we didn’t ignore it either. “
But then a questioner once again pushed Reims to admit to the deliberateness of the casting. “Why is it so hard to say?” the critic asked.
“It’s not hard to say at all, it’s true,” Reims acknowledged. “But we were not going to hire two black people because they were two black people. We don’t consider we are revolutionizing TV, at the same time we realize it is a big deal.”
Continued Reims: “Ever since the casting of this show was announced, other shows have cast black leads that, who knows, maybe wouldn’t have happened. Our plan was not, let’s revolutionize all the history of TV,.…we’re just trying to figure out who the characters are rather than worrying about how we cast it at this point.”
For his part, actor Kodjoe insisted that the race issue is important. “It’s not the norm, but it should be the norm, because that’s what the world looks like,” he mused. “We have a chance to be train blazers or door openers or whatever you want to call it; on the other hand, let’s inspire people to think of it as normal. Not people taking a chance, but just being creative. “
Does the diversity issue play out behind the scenes – in other words, does the show have any black writers, and if so, were they hired for their race?
Again, Reims answered this question in the “yes and no” mode. There are two. “I don’t now if we’re breaking ground with black writers, there are two on staff who are just really good writers,” he said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t notice they were black… Obviously I’m not black, and J.J. is even less black than I am.”
But Reims hopes that race will become less relevant as time goes on. “I was on Chicago Hope, and we had doctors who were black, and we had one black writer,” Reims recalled. He added that this writer was often asked: “ ‘You’re the black writer, so what would they say?” which was ridiculous. If they [the black writers on Undercovers] can inform anything that I can’t inform, then that’s great.”
Even though co-creator/executive producer J.J. Abrams did not attend the panel, Reims said after the session that he is “very involved” in production and insisted on directing the pilot episode.
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