- Written by Lupe Rodriguez Haas
This fall CBS takes a risk with their new original programming coming this 2018-2019 season. Most of CBS’ current lineup is headed by a white male, and while males still dominate the new shows, they represent people of color. Cedric the Entertainer stars in “The Neighborhood,” Brandon Michael Hall (“The Mayor”) headlines “God Friended Me,” and Damon Wayans Jr. and Amber Stevens West are two-thirds of the leads in “Happy Together.” Then there is Jay Hernandez as the face of the new “Magnum PI.” But of course, these characters have their white friends close by.
Forty years ago, CBS was the home of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” where Archie Bunker and George Jefferson rattled off their prejudices on the weekly shows. That was shocking for that time and so soon after the civil rights movement of the 60s. CBS also aired “Good Times” with an all black cast. That was all thanks to Norman Lear, the television icon who brought diversity to television. Somewhere CBS lost their way, and their shows for the last 30 years have been pretty bland when it comes to subject matter and diversity.
The 2018-2019 fall season is about to shake things up even if it’s still baby steps. Not only is the network adding a bit more color with their leads, but one show returns to the “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” vibe.
The most shocking show coming to CBS this fall is “The Neighborhood” starring Cedric the Entertainer, Tichina Arnold (“Martin”) and sitcom veterans “New Girl’s Max Greenfield and “2 Broke Girls” Beth Behrs. The multi-camera sitcom is a reverse idea of “The Jeffersons” in that a white family from the Midwest moves into a predominately working-class black neighborhood. Cedric plays Calvin, a cantankerous family man who has a few prejudices about white people specifically his new neighbors. The word “racist” is thrown around liberally which should make any viewer uncomfortable. The white couple attempts to win him over in the pilot. The concept behind the show is based on executive producer Jim Reynolds’ experience when he moved to Los Angeles in a similar neighborhood represented on the show.
Cedric did worry Calvin may come off too strong or “mean” to some viewers. He addressed that concern at the Television Critic’s Association.
“We worry about the alienation of that because that audience is quick to say that the core CBS audience / middle America... they may see me as this anti-American personality but you’ll come to learn that’s not who Calvin is.”
CineMovie asked Cedric whether Archie Bunker and George Jefferson had any influence in forming his Calvin character, and while he says that was in the back of his mind, he based it more on his uncles.
“The idea was the kind of cantankerous personality that believes that they’ve earned their life to be exactly what they want it to be at this time in their life."
It’ll be interesting to see how CBS viewers react to “The Neighborhood” when it premieres Monday, October 1.
The other new shows pale in comparison. While the leads may look different, the premise behind the other new entries is your typical CBS fare.
“Happy Together” is the cookie-cutter sitcom typical of CBS’s line-up. Damon Wayans Jr. and Amber Steven West are a happily married couple without children until their unexciting lifestyle is shaken up by mega pop star (played by Felix Mallard) who moves in after a breakup. He seeks refuge from the fame but they are dragged into his life of paparazzi and stardom. At the Television Critic’s Association, the show’s executive producer Ben Winston revealed it’s based on his real-life experience when Harry Styles moved in with him and his wife in England.
After watching the pilot, “Happy Together” seems like your typical CBS fare except with a black couple. There’s nothing shocking about the show nor are they reinventing the wheel but most importantly diversity has to start somewhere. It is hard to imagine how a show about a famous roommate will sustain story ideas through multiple seasons, unless another celebrity moves in.
The stand out of the new programming goes to “God Friended Me” starring Brandon Michael Hall as a young man who is friended on Facebook supposedly by God. The self-proclaimed atheist reluctantly helps out strangers under the guidance of a new “friend.” It’ s an updated version of “Touched by an Angel” and “Highway to Heaven” except there is no angel but an ordinary man who happens to be black. This modern update feels fresh and modern with a play on online trends.
A reboot of the “Magnum PI” series arrives this new season with Jay Hernandez as Thomas Magnum, and the Higgins character recast as a woman. Having an actor from a Mexican-American background is refreshing as a lead, and Jay Hernandez has enough charisma to pull it off. Hard core fans may not be as accepting because the show is going for something different but that should be respected and not discarded. The show is your typical procedural drama which has more in common with Hawaii 5-0 than the original “Magnum PI” starring Tom Selleck.
English actress Perdita Hicks plays a female version of Higgins, and she steals the show. In the pilot, she’s got some kick ass skills as a former MI6 agent, and two doberman pinchers as her sidekicks. The original CBS show was definitely a boy’s club with women used as purely side pieces for Magnum. In the updated version, Higgins has to prove herself capable to the boys.
As usual, the Higgins gender switch will not make everyone happy but actress Perdita Hicks is not worried about the haters since the show is not looking to replicate the original.
“I understand people will feel a certain way. It would be great if they could watch it. I think it’s so different. Visually so different, but it adds a little flavor. It’s just a whole other dynamic.”
“Magnum PI” is not the first time a show has gender switched a character, says Perdita. She points to Lucy Lui’s take on Dr. Watson in CBS’ other show “Elementary,” which she says is “the best reconfiguring of a favorite male character.” And let’s not forget the next "Doctor Who's" Jodie Whittaker who is the show's first female doctor.
Things are changing so it’s about time CBS took a further gamble with diversity. Hopefully the ratings will prove it’s a good business to be in.