GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION: THE SOCIAL CONSCIENCE
In the history of television, there have been a minimal amount of programs that outlined the inequalities of “minorities” in the United States. In the 1970’s, iconic television series such as Norman Lear’s “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons” all shed light on racism and politics through comedy. The greatest example of this was the late 80’s Bill Cosby creation “A Different World,” which in my opinion, set the standard for sitcoms centered around social conscience issues that to this date has yet to be equaled. The last few years, three television dramas have set the standard for social conscience in the 21st century: “Hap and Leonard,” “The Chi” and the incredible Netflix limited series “When They See Us.” All three series have stamped their mark on this new “Golden Age of Television.”
Michael K. Williams is in the midst of an incredible run as an actor since he debuted in 2002 as the iconic Omar in “The Wire.” He followed with almost equally iconic roles in “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Night Of.” “Hap and Leonard” was his first television starring role as he co-starred along with James Purefoy as two lifelong interracial friends attempting to maintain their friendship in the racist climate of late 80’s Texas. Williams’s Leonard, like Omar, is another anomaly he portrayed; a homosexual Vietnam War veteran. Purefoy portrays a White draft dodging, ladies man and hippie who detests guns and violence. Both men are diametrically opposed in both their race and political views, yet they unconditionally love each other as brothers. This is shown over and over again as both men risk their lives to save each other time and time again.
“Hap and Leonard” aired for three seasons on the Sundance network from 2016-2018. The second season was the best of the three. Season two centered over Leonard being falsely accused of being a serial killer of children. In the town Hap and Leonard live, several young, black children were murdered over several years. Hap and Leonard fight a racist hometown police force to prove Leonard’s innocence, culminating with a scene that is heartbreaking when the real killers are revealed. Incredible acting by not only Williams and Purefoy, but Irma B. Hall as Leonard’s elderly surrogate grandmother. I was extremely disappointed when Sundance canceled the series after another incredible social conscience season three, which had Hap and Leonard battle White supremacists. I highly recommend that if you’ve never seen this show, to seek it out, especially seasons two and three.
Williams recently appeared in the Ava Duvernay directed limited series “When They See Us” as the father of Antron McCray, one of the five adolescents that were falsely accused and convicted of the 1989 rape of a female Central Park jogger. This four part series is an emotional roller coaster to watch. It will anger you to see how these young men were railroaded, especially 16 year old Korey Wise, sensationally portrayed by Jharel Jerome. Williams, Niecy Nash and John Leguizamo all shined as parents of three of the accused. Although you know the result of the verdict in the courtroom, this series gives you raw and unforgiving dramatizations of the illegal methods used by NYPD detectives while interrogating the five young men. The courtroom scenes, especially the testimonies by both Williams’ and McCray’s characters, will move you to tears. Finally, the abuse Korey Wise suffers in prison is a testament to his intestinal fortitude. Imagine being convicted of a crime you didn’t commit and be physically and mentally tortured everyday in prison? It is unfathomable. “When They See Us” is must see television.
It saddens me to talk about “The Chi” because of the recent allegations that lead to the show having to terminate the star of the show, Jason Mitchell. Mitchell has had an incredible run the last five years, beginning with his phenomenal portrayal as NWA founder Eazy E in “Straight Outta Compton.” In the two seasons of “The Chi,” Mitchell’s portrayal of Brandon, a struggling African American chef struggling to fulfill his dreams while dealing with personal tragedy and financial woes is as great as we’ve ever seen on television. “The Chi” is very similar to “The Wire” as it’s large ensemble cast is set in a major city, this time being Chicago. The show focuses on the major issues plaguing Chicago: gun violence, gentrification, drugs, single mothers, and racism. Without spoiling the events that occur in the first two seasons, both season’s arcs center around Brandon and throughout you find yourself heavily rooting for this young man to overcome his strife and succeed. Showtime and “The Chi” will have to find a way to overcome Mitchell’s absence next season and beyond.
The entire 21st century has seen an incredible run of television dramas. Although “Hap and Leonard” was canceled, we will no doubt continue to see Michael K. Williams shine in future classic television as he did in “When They See Us.” I’m hoping the same can be said of Mitchell, as his sexual harassment allegations on the set of both “The Chi,” and the upcoming Netflix series “Desperados” has caused him to not only be fired by both shows, but being dropped by both his management and talent agency. If the allegations are true, here’s hoping that Mitchell gets the help he needs to get back to an acting career that has currently been short circuited.