TV critic Eric Deggans’ highlighted a peculiar pattern occurring this Fall on the current television line up. Of the 27 new shows on Network TV, White actors play mostly all the lead characters – no surprise there. However, Deggans has observed these networks to add a dash of color on these programs by way of presenting the “Black Best Friend”: a multi-functional illusion of diversity designed to prop up the lead character, move the storyline forward, while lacking a solid storyline of their own.
On NPR’s Morning Edition on Tuesday, Deggans ‘called out’ the BBF trend on the tube:
“I didn’t invent this term, but I first heard of the Black best friend in 2007, used to describe most roles for African-American actresses on television. Think Aisha Tyler on “Ghost Whisperer” or Wanda Sykes in just about every acting role she’s ever had. They have little purpose beyond supporting the show’s White star. Their specialty: wise advice, delivered with a dash of sass and the occasional finger snap.”
The TV critic continued, “For a BBF, this is job one: patiently explaining the magic of life to their White best friend, in ways only a cool, non-white person can. In reality, BBF’s are often a diversity head fake – a quick way to make the casts of TV shows look racially diverse, without taking time to create real characters of color with storylines all their own.” Deggans went on to say, “And this year, there’s so many BBFs around, you can divide them by types. There’s the sidekick best black friend, whose entire purpose seems to be echoing and aiding the White star. This is exemplified by Russell Hornsby on NBC’s new cop drama ‘Grimm.’ He doesn’t really get a scene to himself. But Hornsby’s Hank Griffin works overtime in the background…”
Arguably his most accurate – and disappointing – example is celebrated actor Russell Hornsby. The ultra-manly thespian who once headlined in ABC Family’s successful series Lincoln Heights, and knocked it out the box in HBO’s drama series In Treatment, is reduced to a low key cheerleader in his latest endeavor. A catch 22 for Hornsby fans, and discerning Black audience members, as a talent like his may be too great to ignore but dynamic to diminish. According to Deggans, this unfortunate trend of Oscar and Emmy nominees stuck in sub-par, sidekick roles is widespread on the major Networks, but could this be a perspective from the ‘glass half empty’ standpoint? An argument could be made that the BBF is a small step forward, giving worthy Black actors some shine on these culturally starved Network programs in the short-term.
The case of former SNL star Maya Rudolph proves there is some hope for the Black Best Friend, Deggans suggests. Rudolph’s character which was upgraded from “boss BBF” (in her case, Bi-racial Best Friend) on NBC’s Up All Night has developed to actually carry its own storyline. With some optimism, Deggans adds, “So take heart: If Rudolph can make the upgrade from Black best friend to well-rounded co-star, so can other BBFs. And once these characters are people rather than plot devices, imagine how much better these shows might become.”