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BOJACK HORSEMAN and ’90s Throwbacks To TV Diversity

Back in the ’90s, he was on a very famous TV show.

And now he’s back, trying to recount his life, revive his career, and maybe redeem himself in the process.

Oh, and he’s an anthropomorphic talking horse.

If you haven’t see BoJack Horseman, the Netflix animated show streaming in full right now, go treat yourself to a Hollywood celebrity satire mixed with deeply intelligent, emotional storytelling. And the weirdness of a million animal-specific gags, and the bestiality-that-isn’t that goes way beyond Family Guy.

American pop culture creates a nostalgia wave of looking back 20 years, and right now we’re deep in the wave of ’90s redux.
We keep hitting 20th anniversaries and other throwbacks, from Nirvana to Soundgarden’s Superunknown album to State Farm rolling out Rob Schneider’s Richmeister character from SNL.

Boy Meets World has a sequel, DC Comics is run by ’90s Marvel figures including Jim Lee and Bob Harras, and the music kids from that time rule the pop charts of today. One of them is Grouplove, which has Jane’s Addiction all over its DNA, and wrote the closing theme song to BoJack Horseman.

The dream of the ’90s is alive, everywhere. That includes our comedy, as BoJack rips on ABC’s Friday night family sitcoms of the era through his Full House-like hit show, Horsin’ Around.
But what makes BoJack Horseman so good is that while it could easily have stood on the crutch of making fun of ’90s stuff, instead it’s all just part of the dramatic unfolding of BoJack’s character. We don’t see much of Horsin’ Around except at pivotal moments that made BoJack who he is by the time we reach his drugs-and-booze, unctuous, self-hating, buffoonish present.
That is but one of the ways in which the show works. And for it, I am glad. As much as I liked ’90s pop culture, I liked it then. After listening to SiriusXM Radio’s ’90s pop and alternative rock stations, I don’t need much of the popular music back. Not even Smashing Pumpkins. Sorry.

What I do miss about ’90s pop culture, though, was how many black faces came crashing their way into it. In the music world, a golden age of rap was under way with the East Coast power, the West Coast uprising, and the Dirty South by decade’s end: Wu Tang Clan, Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Digital Underground, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Trick Daddy, Trina. Wow.

Particularly television, which has run much the other way now.
ABC had Family Matters, and NBC had Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, both of which prominently featured black nerds, even if in a way that made my real life, at times, anywhere from awkward to torturous. The Cosby Show was bowing out, but used its time in the ’90s to tackle issues among urban black teens.

Robert Townsend, who made the legendary and still-relevant Hollywood Shuffle, had The Parent ‘Hood. Teen R&B singer Brandy starred in MoeshaHangin’ with Mr. CooperSister, Sister.

Hell, the dearth of black families in sitcom TV today has me wishing for The Wayans Brothers again. And I hated that show.
There was a gate-crasher feeling to black TV shows in the ’90s, as hip-hop really exploded in popularity and began taking pop away from its white, rock and roll champions. (Also something you see today, how music critics who hold up rock as inherently and empirically superior – the rockists – are overwhelmingly white and male. And they are wishing for it to still be 1996.)

The Arsenio Hall Show wisely capitalized on that wave, hosting the guests no other show would put on late night TV. And, as usual in American pop culture, the white guys followed suit and took his guests out from under him. Hall’s show today is a shell of his original show in an age when Jimmy Fallon has The Roots as his house band.
But back in the ’90s, when Hall was on a very famous TV show, he ruled as mainstream blackness went hip-hop. And FOX, in particular, did as well. The network rode that trend with In Living Color, Living Single, Martin, New York Undercover, Roc and MADtv.

If there’s anything I miss from the ’90s, it’s In Living Color.

Was there anything fresher and more out-there than that show in its prime? A sketch comedy show combining topical humor, gross-out gags, foul-mouthed recurring characters, hip-hop acts and dancers?
In Living Color put on uproarious caricatures of West Hollywood black gay men that make us guffaw and cringe by today’s more enlightened standards. But back then, a depiction of an invisible group of people were suddenly on primetime TV. No one else was doing that then. Today, we have Orange Is The New Black as a far more serious view of queer blackness in fictional TV, but VOD doesn’t have the punch and legitimacy of primetime exposure.

With Living Single, we had not only a black version of the Designing Women/Golden Girls model, but such a wide range of black femininity represented. The go-getter, hip-hop journalist; the dorky loser-woman trying to be an actress; the label-conscious, man-eating social climber; and the avarice-driven attorney who was a slob but also a tiger in the sack.

New York Undercover showed a police drama in which people of color played far more than suspects, gang members and prostitutes, while also showing how race and class tensions play out among minorities. Roc took audiences into an August Wilson play every week with a working-class family in Baltimore trying to keep up their neighborhood and get a slice of the American dream.
(Side note: This was also the time when I found out that Kelsey Grammer – who played Frasier Crane, one of the whitest characters alive – was pretty down with black people. He appeared on an episode of Roc as a police detective. He later developed Grammnet Productions and exec-produced black shows Girlfriends and The Game. If you were surprised he did the FX show Partners with Martin Lawrence, it’s because you ain’t paying attention.)

As for drama, we also had Homicide: Life on the Street. For a show with tons of good character actors, Yaphet Kotto and Andre Braugher still stood out in that multicultural cast. Braugher’s portrayal of Det. Frank Pemberton, a role that wasn’t written with a black man in mind, made me want to do acting. Plus, Pemberton was a black Catholic, like me.

As we sit in the so-called age of Obama, the majority’s hopes of a “post-racial” world lay unfulfilled, and the realities of more racialized world continue to be self-evident. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and Mike Brown. The police harassment of stop-and-frisk. Or actress Daniele Watts detained by police who suspected her of being a prostitute that stemmed from her kissing her white boyfriend in a car.
You’d think all this volatility, and the ad hoc commentary of social media, would lead to more diverse television. But most of the TV world in this so-called golden age of drama, starting with The Sopranos, have retreated into worlds with white men at the center.

In these shows, characters of color as little more than sounding boards or functionaries, if they appear at all, such as The Knick, Girls, Hell on Wheels, True Detective, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Or, in Scandal, Sleepy Hollow and The Walking Dead, black women are near-superhuman in their mental strength and are called upon to save everyone.

There are some oases in this desert, such as the Chalky White-vs.-Dr. Narcisse battle in Boardwalk Empire; their scenes together passed a racial Bechdel test in which the Afro-American experience wasn’t cast through a white lens.

The Bridge stands out as a bilingual noir featuring characters of increasing complexity and a situation with no winners or heroes. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has two of the best black male characters on network TV, albeit as part of a very diverse cast.
Call this lack of TV diversity prejudiced or bigoted. That’s bad enough. It’s also unimaginative, which may be worse when it comes to art.
 

ABC this fall appears to be picking up the slack in trying out shows starring people of color or featuring high-POC casts. Black-ish,the first network-TV black family sitcom in eight years, and the Mexican-American Cristela. And for Asians, Selfie starring John Cho as a romantic lead (!) and Fresh Off The Boat. ABC hasn’t doubled down on racial diversity this hard since … what do you know, the ’90s!

As BoJack says: Neigh way, Jose!

If there’s anything I want back from the ’90s, this kind of creativity is welcome. You got it, dude?

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