In the past year Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has become a surprise hit with viewers in the UK watching on Netflix as well as viewers in America, where it airs on The CW. While the show’s sharp writing and hilarious musical numbers have won it fans across the globe, the way it represents and celebrates the diversity of its cast has made it one of the most groundbreaking television shows in recent years.
TV shows have tried for years to include more characters that are of colour as networks realise that not everyone is in fact white. Shocker, I know. But in what often feels like a move to tick a box, these characters are usually fleeting and appear in one or two episodes at most. This was exactly the case for Gabrielle Union, whose character Kristen Lang appeared in one episode of Friends and was the first black character to appear on the show in 2001, a whole seven seasons into the show’s run.
The show soon featured another black women on the show with Aisha Tyler playing Ross’ love interest Charlie before the show ended in 2004. A total of two black characters appeared on Friends throughout the ten years it was on air – for a show set in New York it sure as hell wasn’t that diverse.
Other times when TV shows feature a character that is played by a person of colour, whether they be Black, Hispanic, East Asian or South Asian, it is usually the visible differences to their white counterparts that become the foundation of the character they play. A prime example of this is The Big Bang Theory and is one of a plethora of reasons I cannot stand the show.
The character of Raj Koothrappali, played by British Indian actor Kunal Nayyaris is portrayed as a bumbling foreigner from India who is a Scientist and can’t talk to women and when he does talk it’s with a thick, over the top Indian accent.
There is also Adhir Kalyan, who played Timmy in the CBS sitcom Rules of Engagement. Again, he is South Asian and the colourful traditions of South Asian culture was used as the punch line to many jokes on the show. He also of course had bossy parents whose only storyline on the show was to foist an arranged marriage on him.
I guess you can’t really blame these guys. Trying to land a part on any TV show is hard. But trying to land an acting gig on a TV show when you’re a PoC is almost twice as hard. Most of the time you’re shoehorned into playing the same character over and over again across different shows.
This brings me to a man named Brian George. An Israeli actor who I first saw as a kid when he played Ranjit in Ellen DeGeneres’ 90s sitcom Ellen. He only featured in two episodes of the show but it seemed to have typecast him for life because he can now be seen as Raj Koothrappali’s father in The Big Bang Theory playing near enough same role almost 20 years later.
That’s why it is so refreshing to see Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feature a range characters who aren’t white and give them actual storylines and not use them as props for their poorly-written, and often ignorant as fuck, jokes.
Filipino-American actor Vincent Rodriguez III plays Josh Chan, the show’s main love interest alongside Rebecca Bunch, played by the show’s creator Rachel Bloom. In the show his culture is presented without ignorance and isn’t told through gross stereotypes. It’s probably why the show has become such a hit with American Asians, as well as anyone else who is a PoC watching it. Here is someone who is of colour and their cultural and ethnic differences aren’t being amplified for white audiences to laugh at.
For example, during a Thanksgiving episode where Bloom’s character spends the holiday with Rodriguez’s character and his family, there aren’t any gags or puns made at Rodriguez’s character’s expense. Or a suggestion that the white American way of celebrating Thanksgiving is ‘right’ while all other ways of marking the holiday are weird or inferior.
Rodriguez said in an interview last year that he was surprised the producers were so committed to delivering an authentic and honest representation of Filipino culture, especially at Thanksgiving. He said it was something he’d never experienced or witnessed on the set of any other show he worked on.
Then you have Vella Lovell, who plays the excellent and sarcastic voice of reason Heather Davis. An actress born in New Mexico with Indian heritage, whose character on the show has a black father and a white mother. This was presented to viewers in such a blasé fashion during an episode in season two that even I didn’t even notice it. And that is another thing sitcoms need to start doing; include diversity in all its beautiful forms, but don’t make a big fuss about it and then congratulate yourself about it afterwards as if you’re doing us a favour.
However, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn’t the only show out there trying to tackle the diversity deficit within sitcoms. Mindy Kaling, an Indian American actress and comedian, who shot to fame on The Office USA is fighting the good fight with her own show The Mindy Project.
But a recent Reddit Q&A she did revealed that many fans of the show felt that even with a WoC as its lead, the show still lacked proper diversity. Fans noted that Mindy’s character seemed to only date white men and has been accused of pandering to white women. She responded by saying that she didn’t agree with the criticism, but accepted that there was always room for the show to grow. How much of the criticism she will take on board is yet to be seen.
In the mean time at least Crazy Ex-Girlfriend appears to be getting it right and viewers are clearly enjoying it as the show was renewed for a third season earlier this month.
Let’s hope the success of a show like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend signals a change in attitudes from producers on how PoC are depicted in their shows. Hopefully actors from all races and ethnicities will now be considered for leading roles in sitcoms, instead of the typical supporting roles of haphazzard side-kick, and the characters they play have more than one dimension to them because I’ve seen a lot of Raj Koothrappalis on TV in the past twenty-odd years and quite frankly I’m bored of it.