In recent years, mainstream media has widened its scope to feature the stories and work of diverse, formerly marginalized voices. 2020 has embraced this momentum. These new works of televised art have granted viewers a sense of emotional reprieve in these uncertain times in a sense much deeper than escapism. And artistic media is changing — now more than ever, new voices are rising, gaining traction through the myriad streaming services available to us.
Here, I’ll describe a few shows that debuted this year, representing a positive step forward.
These examples highlight black experiences, female experiences, Jewish experiences, Muslim experiences, and queer experiences in a necessary way. It is especially important that we take a moment to acknowledge marginal voices and queerness within artistic media during June, which is Pride Month. Pride Month began on the basis of challenging dominant narratives of whiteness and heteronormativity. Queerness itself represents the multifaceted and free, beyond the mainstream binary options of sexual and identity expression. It is about time that the shows we watch reflect the diverse population that watches them.
Based on the 2017 novel of the same name, this series weaves through the intertwining narratives of two powerful female roles. Developed by Liz Tigelaar, and set in the late 1990s, the show brilliantly illuminates a stark sociopolitical disparity between two comparable acts. Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) are two mothers, one white and one black. Each character is complex, forcing the audience to think twice before assigning the labels of “good” and “evil.” Beyond the characters, the series itself is incredibly nuanced, with cryptic secrets lurking beneath the surface.
Blurring the lines of class and race, and challenging commonly held assumptions, each plotline is neatly explored and encapsulated within a compelling narrative drama. Viewers are challenged to reconsider their views on motherhood — for example, viewers must morally align with either a poor Asian immigrant woman who temporarily gave up her child out of necessity, and a well-off Caucasian woman, who has struggled with childbirth for decades. In this context, as each perspective is explored, the ideas of right and wrong remain obscure.
Furthermore, there are several elements of ekphrasis, or art within art, as the tale delves into the work of Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), a mysterious, sexually fluid traveling artist. The story itself, and the female-led production behind this series, highlight women’s voices in a refreshing way.
Created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, this show is set in the 1950s in, you guessed it — Hollywood, California. It depicts the ebbs and flows of Hollywood culture, both the exhilarating times as well as the cutthroat mentality behind moviemaking. It embraces a revisionist style of storytelling, imagining a Hollywood which had integrated much sooner, and allowed for more diversity and inclusion earlier than is historically apparent.
Though the show boasts its connection to real stories and figures, it is essentially a fantasy, one which gives the underdogs a fighting chance. The show fictionalizes characters and stories, offering a behind-the-scenes look into the conventions which crafted “American” popular culture. It acknowledges the hypocrisy of a “pure” American culture, one often manufactured by the most despicable and impure. The show’s discussions around inequality, diversity, sexual assault, and authenticity ring acutely relevant today.
Where do I begin? Among the new releases of the year, this show is a personal favorite. It is an underdog story with just about as much nuance as one could hope for. The show, created by Dave Burd and Jeff Schaffer, stars a Jewish man with dreams of becoming not just a rapper, but a once-in-a-lifetime recognized talent. It is a semi-autobiographical piece, meant to depict the real experiences of Dave Burd, aka Lil Dicky.
In real life, Dave has experienced quite a bit of success; by contrast, the show instead dwells on a time when his career was first picking up speed. It features several real life friends of Dave Burd; one, named Gata, is a black man who lives with bipolar disorder, a struggle rarely mentioned and beautifully depicted in the show. The show further delves into the politics and pitfalls of the Los Angeles music industry, and offers an abstract take on confronting childhood traumas and inner demons. At its core, this show is a charming comedy featuring several fun and surprising celebrity guests.
How To Get Away With Murder, Season 6 (2014-2020)
This show is very near and dear to my heart. It ran for six incredible seasons, with the second half of the final season airing this year. This particular show paved the way for Viola Davis to win an Emmy for best lead actress in a television series — she was the first woman of color to do so. It came from the same team of producers that brought us Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, with Shonda Rhimas at its helm.
It showcased the talents of Peter Nowalk, a queer writer, and starred several queer characters, including Viola Davis’ lead role, Annalise Keating. This show constantly prompted conversations about race and class differences, critiques of the justice system, illustrations of the spectrum of sexuality, journeys of nuanced characters, and loads of juicy secrets. The television series used fictional cases and clients to delve into these topics and critiques. In a recent season Annalise Keating argued before the supreme court on behalf of a mentally ill African American man who was placed in solitary confinement for a year, exacerbating his mental illness and driving him to more destructive behavior. Stories like this, though presented in a fictional context, ring true in our society, where countless African American individuals are confined in cages rather than receiving the mental, economical, and social help that they need.
The series finale left me in tears, fully living up to my standards after a six-year journey.
Insecure, Season 4 (2016- )
Created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, Insecure is another show that’s been around for several years. The show stars two dark skinned black leading women, Issa Dee (Issa Rae) and Molly Carter (Yvonne Orji), as they navigate life and love in Los Angeles. These women are portrayed as wholly human, preceding the broad stereotypes as black women, professionals, or girlfriends, etc.
Issa, our leading woman, struggles to provide healthy creative outlets for her community which is vastly being gentrified. She sees the beauty in black culture and wants to celebrate that. The series itself echoes these sentiments by constantly showcasing black businesses, artists, and cultural spaces, giving its viewers a virtual tour of “black Los Angeles” with every episode.
This year, the show airs its fourth season, continuing this practice. The series tackles the topics of gentrification, adult romances, sexual experimentation, interracial relationships, feelings of aimlessness, depression, as well as uncertainty. Refreshingly, the team working behind the scenes to write and produce this project is just as diverse as the characters depicted in the show.
Ramy, Season 2 (2019-)
Similar to Dave this show has highly biographical elements. It was created by Ramy Youssef, Ari Katcher, and Ryan Welch and stars Ramy Youssef, as Ramy. This critically acclaimed show also features Ramy Youssef’s real life friend, Steve Way, a disabled man, who plays a character of the same name. Ramy is a young, often aimless Muslim man who is constantly trying to be a good person on his journey of self-discovery. He navigates friendship, romance, sex, and family in his expedition of morality.
A key part of this show is Ramy’s spirituality. He is a part of the Muslim faith and has Egyptian heritage. These factors of his identity, rather than being background details, are the driving factors of this narrative. Ramy’s Islamic heritage is honored and highlighted in several ways from the soundtrack, to the often-Arabic dialogue, the prayers, and mosque scenes, and the filming locations of Arabic restaurants and public spaces. The final two episodes of the first season were even filmed in Egypt. This show is necessary in that it depicts the beauty and humanity of Islam as a whole. Furthermore the individual Muslim characters are depicted with complexity in a way that has quite literally never been done before.
These television debuts depict protagonists from the most underrepresented parts of our society. I offer this brief list of television shows and films for you to consider adding to your viewing catalog. These projects tell stories that implicate us and inspire us. They have the power to influence our assumptions and thereby our actions. Media like this can change our society in a positive way. Stay safe and contemplate inspiring things!