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The Face of Television Is Changing

How ‘Atlanta’ and ‘Queen Sugar’ are reimagining who gets to make TV

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are no white leads on Atlanta. There are no white writers on Atlanta. There are no white directors on Atlanta.

This sounds like headcounting, but you can’t really talk about Donald Glover’s remarkable new FX series without unpacking who actually made the show. For one thing, it’s vital to the series they’ve created: a gorgeous, wry, surreal portrait of a place that’s somehow both ubiquitous in pop culture and almost completely ignored by it. For another, this doesn’t happen. Like, ever.

We’re in a period of unusually intense scrutiny on diversity in the arts. It’s part of a larger cultural moment of coming to terms with identity and how it affects us, rendered into more easily digestible moments like #OscarsSoWhite and #ThatDumbVanityFairSpread. On television, it’s meant both a loudly stated awareness of the problem and, to a far lesser extent, halting steps to fix it. ABC has an entire prime-time programming block executive produced by a black woman, plus a whole slate of non-white-bread family sitcoms (and another in the works). For the first time in its history, Saturday Night Live had enough black performers to cast entire sketches with them — until they fired one, of course. The small-screen DC universe will probably have a black lead before the cinematic one does. All of it’s promising, even if none of it’s a panacea.

Yet for all the hype, no show has come even close to doing what Atlanta has, and it shows. The setup throws together loveable-loser-type Earn (Glover) and the cousin (Brian Tyree Henry) whose rap career he’s smart enough to see as a golden ticket. Earn struggles to convince the mother of his child there’s a pot of gold waiting at the end of his underemployed struggle-rainbow; his cousin Alfred, better known as Paper Boi, has to balance newfound fame with old habits. (Ironically, the drug dealing that financed his studio time isn’t compatible with the higher profile it paid for.) The first four episodes of the story give tangible meaning to tired phrases like “a different perspective,” mixing deadpan humor, light absurdity, and a rock-solid sense of place into something that just doesn’t feel like anything else on TV. What stands apart from the rest of television in raw numbers — to throw out just one, 88 percent of episodes FX itself premiered last season were directed by white men — stands apart in the final product as well.

Conversations about diversity in TV often end up in the cul-de-sac, the so-called “pipeline problem”: Like tends to mentor like, so the more white men have hiring power, the more white men are waiting in the wings to take the reins. Atlanta, meanwhile, has just two veteran TV writers — Glover and Stefani Robinson. The rest are newcomers, though given Atlanta’s early and well-deserved praise, they stand a more-than-decent chance of graduating to higher rungs of the industry, just as Glover himself came out of 30 Rock. (Watch the cutaways.) Glover’s own origin story is fairly boilerplate by the standards of contemporary comedy: NYU undergrad, a stint at UCB, graduation to a writers’ room. The careers he’s enabling, though, follow less conventional paths. Hiro Murai, who directed the majority of Atlanta’s first season, worked with Glover on several Childish Gambino videos, but had never tackled narrative work before. Atlanta is the product of relative novices whose inexperience is a gift, not a burden.

Like Atlanta, Queen Sugar, also premiering tonight, demonstrates the possibilities of widening the TV creator pool. Ava DuVernay’s first major scripted project since Selma, based on a novel of the same name by Natalie Baszile, the show’s basic structure has shades of Six Feet Under: Three estranged siblings are thrown together by the death of their father, an indebted sugar cane farmer in rural Louisiana. It’s also DuVernay’s first television show, and it’s brought to us not by Netflix, HBO, or any of the usual purveyors of big-names-as-automatic-prestige, but the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Winfrey and DuVernay have a preexisting relationship; Oprah produced Selma and appeared in it as activist Annie Lee Cooper. Queen Sugar isn’t an isolated effort, though — it’s part of a broader push at OWN into ambitious scripted shows. Queen Sugar arrives just a few months after Greenleaf, the megachurch drama headed by Craig Wright, an alumnus of Six Feet Under, Lost, and United States of Tara. (As with Selma, Winfrey is present both behind the camera, as an executive producer, and in front of it, as a club owner whose scenes scream “I’m too important to deal with any other sets.”) Given that OWN’s lineup also includes a Tyler Perry soap, Greenleaf represented a significant shift for the network. And it seems to be working: Reviews were good, and so are the ratings, which started strong and have held steady at over 2 million viewers throughout the season. Greenleaf isn’t Halt and Catch Fire, a critically beloved show scraping by at the bottom of the ratings chart. It’s WGN America’s Underground — proof that you can kick-start a fledgling and/or pivoting cable network by appealing to audiences the rest of cable doesn’t even try to cater to.

Queen Sugar builds on that strategy, and as with Atlanta, it starts with who hires whom. Every one of Queen Sugar’s 13 episodes is helmed by a female director, from veterans (Neema Barnette, the first black woman to direct a sitcom) to TV novices (Kat Candler and So Yong Kim, indie filmmakers making the increasingly common jump to a new medium). The look of Queen Sugar, carefully composed and cast in subdued blue-greens, is its biggest selling point, and as DuVernay intended, it’s already having a ripple effect: A half dozen of the directors have landed future work on the likes of American Crime, Survivor’s Remorse, and Transparent.

At their best, both Atlanta and Queen Sugar spotlight what there’s room for when blandly “universal” shows and their often-patronizing tokenism no longer carry the sole burden of representation. Instead, Glover and DuVernay craft their own worlds on their own terms. On Queen Sugar, Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) — by far the strongest character — navigates the tricky optics of being an NBA player’s wife as well as his manager; a scene where she debates joining a Basketball Wives–style reality show is a fascinating glimpse at just how many interests she’s weighing as a black woman in the public eye. Meanwhile, her half brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), adds recovery and parole obligations to the already considerable challenges of working-class single parenthood.

Queen Sugar isn’t as successful as Atlanta, if only in the sense that a solid, intriguing new show isn’t as good as the flat-out best debut of the year. It’s intentionally melodramatic, eager to explain itself where Atlanta pointedly refuses to. The music cues are distractingly heavy-handed, sometimes interrupting the mesmerizing pull of the camerawork from DuVernay and her roster of directors. We know one character is an investigative journalist because she types in a document that says “JOB TITLE: INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST” at the top. Atlanta, meanwhile, doesn’t flinch before taking the audience along for the ride when Earn spends a night in jail. Big Topics like police brutality and transphobia come up organically; jokes do, too. It’s confidence, not hand-holding, that makes the balancing act work.

It’s worth comparing the shows because they showcase the payoff of letting nonwhite, nondude creators have not just a seat at the table, but the whole table to themselves. Ultimately, it’s not just a matter of social good, though it’s certainly that, but of good art — a lesson that carries far beyond these two shows. In her response to yet another casting controversy over a cisgendered actor playing a transgender role, actress and Her Story creator Jen Richards argued the decision was as misguided artistically as it was creatively: “Having trans people play trans people allows for more informed, subtle, authentic performance,” she tweeted. “It makes for BETTER ART … Trans actors rather perform the story, not our gender.”

It’s an argument that applies equally to Atlanta and Queen Sugar’s portraits of black America. And while those shows provide an unusually concentrated case study by premiering at the exact same time, they’re not alone in proving it. Samantha Bee went out of her way to look for rookies, women, and people of color when assembling her now Emmy-nominated writers’ room; Full Frontal gets called “refreshing” as often as John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is said to “destroy” its topic of the week. Transparent’s Jill Soloway has employed only one cisgender male director in her show’s 20-episode run, and frequently evangelizes the results. “There’s a lot of people sitting around in rooms discussing how to make it happen as opposed to just, like, doing it,” Bee told New York magazine before Full Frontal’s premiere. Shows that just do the damn thing from the start don’t have to ask how.

Just as exciting as the shows themselves, though, are the futures they promise. Great shows can be both stand-alone works of art and self-fulfilling prophecies, mighty oak and acorn alike. The Sopranos gave us Mad Men, springboarding Matthew Weiner from staff writer to showrunner. We don’t know what Atlanta or Queen Sugar will give us yet, but we’ll be waiting.