American Period Television is Slowly Embracing Race

By  · Published on August 18th, 2014


In the seven years since it debuted, there have been several constants in the reaction to Mad Men: the critics have loved it, everyone has nursed a crush on Jon Hamm, and viewers have asked where the black people are. The time span covered by the period drama, from early 1960 until (presumably) the end of 1969, was one of extraordinary shifts in race relations in America. This was the height of the Civil Rights movement, after all. But that’s only happening in the background noise on Mad Men. This is entirely intentional on the part of creator Matthew Weiner and his writing staff, who have made it one facet of the isolated world of Madison Avenue advertising movers and shakers in which the show dwells.

It’s debatable whether that’s a justifiable excuse (I can see points both in and against its favor), but even accepting it, there are still times where it’s just odd to be viewing the ’60s through an almost entirely white lens (most notably in the episode that addressed the death of Martin Luther King Jr.). In any case, it might be easier to swallow had the myriad shows produced in the hopes of mimicking Mad Men’s success not followed its lead on this front. The period piece genre, which gains traction each year, is one of the most lily-white milieus on American television, and that’s even by the standards of the already overwhelmingly white prestige drama herd. Pan Am, Vegas, Magic City, Halt and Catch Fire, Turn — all of them have little-to-no diversity in their casts.

There have been exceptions, but to date, they have all been minor. Boardwalk Empire had Michael K. Williams in its main cast from the get-go, and added Jeffrey Wright in its most recent season. But that show hasn’t managed to retain a significant audience over its run (which no one would have guessed from it’s much-ballyhooed, Scorsese-directed premiere). The Playboy Club featured Naturi Naughton as a woman hoping to become the first black Playmate, but that show failed to make any cultural penetration, on account of getting cancelled after three episodes. Hell on Wheels has had both Common and Eddie Spears (for a time) in its roster, but that’s a show that just sort of… exists, sustaining on a just-big-enough audience. American Horror Story: Asylum was a hit, and it touched on race a bit, but that was a minor subplot at best.

What these shows demonstrate, at least, is a tentative step in the right direction. It’s not anything that deserves back-patting over, but it’s something. And the incorporation of nonwhite people into period dramas appears to be gaining steam. Manhattan, The Knick, and Penny Dreadful are all shows that have premiered this year with a person of color in their main casts. But even then, with each of them, it’s one POC. It’s a strange world where, in 2014, tokenism is an upgrade from the old norm. However, there is cause for optimism that goes beyond casting choices – some high-profile period shows are making it a point to actually tell stories that deal with what it was like to be a POC in their respective time periods.

Masters of Sex has neither a great audience nor significant awards attention, but it is among the most critically-beloved of the newer shows on TV. More pertinently, it is shaping up to address race this season more fully than any period drama to date. It’s relocated its two main characters to an all-black hospital in St. Louis (an unintentionally timely subject, given the current racial tensions in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis). Already, the show has used the racial background of its late ’50s to mix with and enrich the themes it already has in play; a marked difference from Mad Men’s “do not engage” strategy.

At the end of the episode “Giants,” Dr. Hendricks (Courtney B. Vance), the head of the hospital, explains his attitude towards progress. He wants to integrate his hospital, and he wants it to happen sooner rather than later. He compares it to jumping straight into ice water, instead of gradually easing oneself in. “There’s too much to accomplish to take my time doing it, which is why I hired you” he tells Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). Masters hesitantly responds that, “I’m afraid history may be outside my purview.”

That right there gets at the heart of why this race problem exists in period dramas: like most television, it’s written mainly by white people, with a white audience in mind. That mindset makes hesitancy to address race understandable, though not forgivable. Hendricks tells Masters that, “You know that’s not true.” Masters, after all, is in the midst of a revolutionary study on human sexuality. Cable TV is eager to break norms when it comes to sex, drugs, and violence. But bring race into the equation, and suddenly a lot of shows are quite skittish. Masters even sounds a little like Matthew Weiner here, denying that race has anything to do with the story he wants to tell (the way he wants to tell it, at least).


In the pilot episode of The Knick, “Method and Madness,” Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) doesn’t wish to bring Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) onto his staff. Though Edwards is talented, he is also black, and in 1900 New York, Thackery figures this will be too controversial a move. “I am not interested in an integrated hospital staff,” he bluntly tells Edwards, “You can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you. I don’t want you in my circus.” Hospital benefactor Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), who suggested Edwards for the position, confronts Thackery over this. “Is this really a fair time to begin a social crusade?” he asks her. “We’re not an incubator for some progressive experiment.”

In these words, you can hear a thousand Internet commenters who respond to queries about the lack of representation in period dramas with claims that it’s “historically accurate” to exclude POC’s from such shows. Progressiveness should be left elsewhere, they say (where, precisely, is never established). Of course, The Knick is indeed ignoring history in this matter, since the first black surgeon did not work at a white New York hospital until 1920. But as that article demonstrates, that’s just one of many facts that the show is setting aside in order to pursue wider points about its time period. The truth is, what any of these shows do and don’t get right about their settings is entirely up to what the creators care about. The Knick is making clear that it cares about the experiences of this black man in this time period (and it should be noted that Holland is the second-billed member of the cast, after Owen).

WGN recently announced that it’s put a series about the Underground Railroad on the fast track to development. Assuming that the story of the Railroad doesn’t go extensive, horrible revision, this will be the first show from the modern trend of period dramas to feature an all or majority black cast. And it’s about time such a show came around. Hopefully it is good, and hopefully similar shows are picked up going forward (the Civil Rights movement is so perfectly suited for television dramatization that, quite frankly, ingrained studio racism is the only reason we haven’t gotten one yet). The most recent (the seventh!) season of Mad Men finally featured a conversation of substance between two black characters. And it was a really great scene, which actually makes it hurt worse – all this time, this show could have been including a greater variety of experiences and pulling it off, but the writers consciously chose not to “go there.” It would be fantastic if more creators adopted the philosophy of plunging instead of easing into this ice, to put it in Dr. Hendricks’ terms. But that’s not the way television makers work, generally. That’s probably not about to change, but racial diversity in period TV looks like it is. Slowly, but surely.