A tale of two black guysPosted: November 3, 2012
This is a story about two men. Two black men. They are both tall. They are both straight. One lives in TV LA, the other lives in TV Chicago.
This is Brad.
This is Winston.
Brad, played by Damon Wayans Jr on ABC’s Happy Endings, an improv-heavy ensemble comedy about six friends in Chicago with lots of that quick, pop culture riffing that has become the tone de jour since 30 Rock and Community, is a metrosexual with a pair of great, pearly white teeth and a hot, ultra type-A white wife Jane (Eliza Coupe).
Winston, played by Larmone Morris on Fox’s New Girl, an improv-lite ensemble comedy about three men and one girl living in a loft in LA with the will they/won’t they non-tension of imminent copulation always, perpetually on the horizon, is a black man who played basketball in Latvia for some time. He likes the musical Wicked. That’s about it for Winston.
To parse the differences between these two Black Men on White Sitcoms, one has to admit a few facts right off the bat.
First, Damon Wayans Jr. is a better actor than Lamorne Morris. He has more energy, a better sense of timing, a reliable set of comedic attributes, from his slightly nasal, high-pitched voice, to his elastic, though still attractive face. In the great incestuous way of TV shooting season, Damon Waynans was actually on New Girl, playing the part of Coach in the pilot. When Happy Endings was renewed, he made like a good comedic actor and went with the show with more innovative storylines and talented improv actors. So, basically, who knows what the mandatory-black-friend-in-predominantly-white-sitcom-on-network TV (because cable doesn’t give a fuck) role on New Girl might have been had Damon Waynans played it?
That said, the writers’ approaches to to these characters has been interesting.
On New Girl, there is evident floundering. There is the very real sense that these writers don’t know what to do with Winston. They don’t know whether to straight man him or make him weird. (Same clip because there is major evidence of both.) They address his race awkwardly. Someone will mention Winston’s blackness once in a while and it’s a totally a meaningless gesture, essentially a subconscious acknowledgment that the writers really don’t know what they’re doing. They give Winston a black love interest (because to pair him a girl of another race would be too edgy for this twee comedy) , a love interest so utterly devoid of personality that the whole thing smells faintly of Val in The Office, the black warehouse worker invented to give Craig Robinson a love life. These roles are thankless and pitiful and the actresses that play them subconsciously relay that blandness with their lackluster acting skills.
The problem with Winston, with these black friends on white sitcoms roles in general, is that either the black friend is just like everybody else and their race is occasionally brought up as a friendly reminder, or they are the Black Friend, full of Black wisdom, as derived from years and years of romantic comedies and buddy movies.
On TV at least, the advantage, usually (although as shows like Parks and Recreation have shown us, this isn’t always the case) is the ability to flesh out these minor characters and give them a good back story. With Winston though, he is both insufficiently black and not black enough. He is a space. Not a white space, a black space. He is balkanized from a lot of the camaraderie between Nick, Jess and Schmidt, largely because the sexual tension between him and Jess cannot be explored. And so Winston feels strangely neutered. While Schmidt and Jess conquer whatever sexual tensions existed early on and Nick and Jess are currently in this inevitable, long-winded road to a Rachel-Ross scenario, Winston watches on the sidelines, sometimes giving out advice, but usually out of the conversation. He is the weak link. (And so is Hannah Simone, the actress who plays Cece, for that matter Jess’s best friend and is one half of one the least convincing depictions of female friendship on TV.)
Brad Williams in Happy Endings, on the other hand, is a boon. Again, Wayan’s acting chops definitely help but it’s not just that. The writers aren’t afraid to let Brad’s freak flag fly. He is a fully formed, idiosyncratic individual with a Barney Stinson-esque appreciation for suits, and a penchant for work. He and Jane (Eliza Coupe, who is instantly watchable in anything, even season 9 Scrubs), have one of the most fascinating, in sync and unique conjugal relationships on TV. Brad’s blackness is neither the defining tenet of who Brad is, nor is it swept under the rug, magically excised to accommodate a Shonda Rimes-like world of racial harmony. No other moment from the show quite captures this dynamic than in the B storyline in season 2’s opening episode. It was the first episode of Happy Endings I watched and it was love, I tell you, love at first sight:
What they did here feels radical even though nary a TV critic addressed it. Here in four minutes, a convincing, hilarious, encapsulation of 2012 interracial urban bromances. Sometimes after you’ve been up to your eyeballs in NPR listening, arugula eating, skinny jeans wearing world of stereotypical whiteness, you need a healthy dose of ratchetness. They are not mutually exclusive. Or shouldn’t be. That’s nailed here.
Also, crucially, this storyline establishes a context for Brad, a world where Brad’s lone blackness in a sea of whiteness feels more credible. It may not seem like much, but it, in a strange way considering the general daffiness of the show, this storyline gives the show gives real world heft, especially when you stop and consider how segregated Real Life Chicago actually is. It’s not a perfect show–racially wise. Penny’s ‘Korean grandma’ from first season was all kinds of problematic and the ole ‘is it worse to be gay or black?’ debate is one of those white-liberal-but-not-progressive tics so frustrating in its ignorance that it makes me want to scream and it would be nice if some of the potential love interests could be something other than white, but then again, they are in Chicago…
Basically though, the writers on New Girl should really take a page out of the Happy Endings playbook and let Winston be. They seem to be trying, but it’s an agonizingly slow process.