By Mark Harris
Updated May 04, 2012 at 01:22 PM EDT
Mark Seliger/HBO

Network execs are making a halfhearted effort to cast more diverse characters — but too often those characters are exactly like the white ones. When will minorities get not just a presence but a voice?

Lena Dunham’s excellent HBO series Girls is only three weeks old, but the acutely observed tragicomedy about four overeducated, underachieving white women in their early 20s has already come under fire from its small but devoutly ambivalent audience. The charge: lack of diversity. Girls feels like an odd target for that complaint: Why not, for example, Game of Thrones, where, except for the random dude on horseback, “swarthy” is about as ethnic as things get? I assume that extensive historical research has shown that very few people of color resided in Fake Magical Dragonia (or, apparently, in the neighboring fantasylands of Grimm, American Horror Story, and Once Upon a Time). Then again, since the entire target audience for Girls is TV critics, high-volume tweeters, and people who like to argue about stuff like diversity, it’s not surprising that this has come up. And although Girls is getting a bad rap, that shouldn’t overshadow the issue’s importance.

The discussion isn’t new. In 1995 Oprah Winfrey asked the cast of Friends, with a combination of longing and edge, “Could you all get a black friend to stop over?” TV’s overwhelmingly white-on-white color scheme has improved since then. But it’s still too easy to pretend that head count alone solves the problem. The ensembles of Happy Endings and New Girl each include an African-American actor — but diverse isn’t the first word I’d use to describe shows about people who are roughly the same age and share worldviews, senses of humor, and the odd habit of talking as if they were improv comics. The point behind race-blind casting is often “They’re just like us,” but the “us” — and the perspective that goes with it — remains as default Caucasian as ever. A show creator like Shonda Rhimes, whose Scandal puts an African-American woman not just in its cast but at its center, is a real rarity; characters of color on most new series, from Unforgettable to 2 Broke Girls, seem to be there solely so that someone can say “Present!” when attendance is taken. Is that better than nothing? Or does it represent a cynicism even more offensive than oblivion was?

There’s little doubt that as long as white writers, producers, and execs dominate television, not much will change. Until then, TV’s take on race will remain timid to the point of dishonesty. Often, when a comedy or drama includes non-white characters, their function is to illustrate the principle that race doesn’t matter. But no sane person who has watched the news in the past four years, four months, or four weeks can argue that we’re living in a postracial society or that there’s nothing more to talk about, and shows that attempt to solve their diversity problem by imagining that casting equals content can edge dangerously close to tokenism. No, not every show needs to be about race, nor does any actor of color deserve to be deployed as a tool for racial exploration. But I’d rather watch even a largely white show that is unafraid to poke at America’s race-based hypocrisies and blind spots (as, for example, The Good Wife has done repeatedly this season, and as The Office did in its now-distant heyday) than see another series that thinks, “We’ve got one — problem solved.”

The first obligation of any ambitious scripted series is to entertain with truth. On Girls, Dunham’s particular truth resides in characters who are insular in contemporary and, like it or not, recognizable ways: They’re obsessively analytical, they’re apparently unaware that they self-segregate, and they disguise narcissism as casual irony. Dunham gets that — her character’s panicky, inanely glib monologue about what the bright spots of being HIV-positive might be was clearly the work of a smart writer with plenty of critical distance from the imperfect character she plays. So, as Oprah might ask, why don’t those girls have any black friends? That’s a great question for Dunham to explore. But simply to label it as a problem she should feel obliged to “fix” is just another kind of whitewashing.

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