TV revivals and inclusive casting: An opportunity that can't just be skin-deep

"Magnum P.I." and "Charmed" are back, starring actors of color. But what role does culture play in these stories?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 26, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

"Charmed" (The CW)
"Charmed" (The CW)

Given the vast array of revivals and reboots of classic series that are in the works, restoring “Charmed,” which ran between 1998 and 2006, would seem to be a no-brainer. At one point it might have been considered a staple of the millennial viewer's TV diet, what with its 178 episodes cycling almost constantly in syndication during the early ‘00s. When it debuted on Netflix in 2012, it became the streamer's second most binged-watched title.

Reintroducing “Charmed” to a new generation should be a slam dunk for The CW. Instead, when the network moved forward with an update of the "Power of Three" mythology, placing supernatural abilities into the hands of Latinx actors and handing writing duties to executive producers Jessica O’Toole, Amy Rardin and "Jane the Virgin" creator Jennie Snyder Urman, social media users responded with a cloud of curses.

Most of the ire stems from the fact that The CW moved forward with the intellectual property without involving the original’s creator Constance M. Burge or its stars, among them Holly Marie Combs (who plays Piper Halliwell), who served as producers.

Consider the language in that sentence, specifically the claim of belonging. Not in the legal sense; the title belongs to CBS Corporation, which bought Spelling Television Inc., the company that produced the first "Charmed".

Rather, it’s that concept of ownership and belonging that’s behind the current drive to bring back old TV shows with inclusive leads. Genre titles attract every kind of viewer but until recently, and with a few exceptions, tend to cast white actors in the main roles, sometimes even when a character is originally conceived as a person of color. Seeing minorities at the forefront of popular established titles affirms the audience's diversity, not to mention a more accurate representation of how the world looks.

And while that should be seen as a positive development, recent misfires, particularly with movies such as "Ghost in the Shell," have resulted in vocalized misgivings about what The CW is seeking to achieve by replacing Prue, Piper, Phoebe and Paige Halliwell with the Vera sisters, Maggie (Sarah Jeffery) and Mel (Melonie Diaz) and their older Afro-Latinx half-sister Macy Vaughn (Madeleine Mantock).

They will operate in a familiar structure albeit with new stories, as will Jay Hernandez, the star of CBS’s “Magnum P.I.” reboot. Hernandez, an actor of Mexican-American heritage, is taking on the very role that made Tom Selleck an '80s sex symbol.

Coming later in the season is “Roswell, New Mexico,” an update of “Roswell” starring a Cuban-American actress, Jeanine Mason. Another proposed reboot envisioned Steven J. Cannell’s 1981 cult classic “The Greatest American Hero” with an Indian American woman as the main character. Ultimately, however, that project failed to achieve liftoff.

Neither the Vera sisters’ ethnic makeup, nor the new Thomas Magnum’s brown-ness, are specifically mentioned in their respective pilots. And this leads to the query of whether The CW and CBS are reviving these titles with a close regard for inclusivity or engaging in skin-deep racebending.

“I find the backlash, to be frank with you, a little bit weird,” said Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who was a writer on the earlier seasons of the original “Charmed” before going on to serve as a producer on many other series, including “Lost.” (Currently he’s working on Netflix and The Jim Henson Company ’s revival of “The Dark Crystal” as a co-executive producer, and serves as a consulting producer on “Blood and Treasure” for CBS.)

“The show was a very popular entertainment, you know, and one that has been loved by many people. But it was also on for eight years and, and they told that story from every angle possible," he said. “The idea that somehow recasting it with a diverse cast invalidates or erases the original is such a strange conceit to me.”

And yet where there is concern, the fear has less to do with the possibility of negating the original's legacy than doing a disservice to the culture featured in an update. This fueled the immediate negative reaction to news that a revival of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” featuring an African American lead was in the works.

Monica Owusu-Breen is an executive producer (alongside original “Buffy” creator and executive producer Joss Whedon) and showrunner of this new addition to the “Buffy” universe. And while Owusu-Breen, who also wrote for “Charmed” (and much more recently, created NBC’s supernatural drama “Midnight, Texas”) declined to elaborate on her statement regarding that project for this story, she did share her thoughts with Salon about the general practice of rebooting established titles with inclusive casting.

“Take a movie like ‘West Side Story,’ which is a retelling of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” she said. “By virtue of adding diversity and adding different points of view, it breathes new life into this story that feels really familiar. So for me, there's this immense possibility of revisiting stories we love or situations we love from a different vantage point. That makes it worth revisiting as opposed to telling the same story.

“Where I feel like I do question it is when it becomes purely cosmetic,” she added. “For me, when you're telling a familiar story and having a different vantage point, letting your character have different conflicts and experience the world differently just by virtue of where they were born and what they were born as, feels like a really interesting way to approach rebooting a project as opposed to trying to tell the exact same story. The story already exists, so why retell it the same way?”

READ MORE: College bound after a brush with death: How do you let your kid go when you almost lost her?

The concept of racebending was inspired by the 2010 production of “The Last Airbender,” in which white actors were cast in roles that, in the animated source “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” were originally realized as characters from indigenous cultures and drawn with brown skin. (As an addendum to Owusu-Breen’s example, in “West Side Story” the lead role of Maria, a Puerto Rican character, is played by Natalie Wood.), the grassroots organization advocating for more representation of marginalized groups in popular culture, specifies that racebending can have a positive effect by adding a diverse perspective to an existing story.

“This seems to happen very rarely, and the practice is often misunderstood as ‘political correctness’ or ‘affirmative action,’” an expository section the site reads. “Even as these actions attempt to correct an imbalance, clumsier attempts can worsen an already bad situation by reinforcing even more stereotypes.”

Where inclusive recasting goes wrong is when producers cast a person of color in a role originated by a white actor simply for sake of doing so, glossing over the cultural implications of that choice. “I can understand why aesthetically, a lot of people who create shows and then recast the leads as minorities would do that,” Grillo-Marxuach said. “They want to portray the idea that these [characters] are just Americans like anybody else. And I think it comes from a good place. The problem is that sometimes you wind up with this big elephant in the room of, ‘How come we've never mentioned that this guy is Latinx when he clearly is?' Any dramatic writing brings up situations like that.”

As with any of these discussions, there are various degrees of presenting a story in a way that’s true to the property and to character, and just as many ways to get it wrong. One of the best decisions the casting directors for AMC’s “Preacher” made was to cast the formidable Ruth Negga as Tulip, a character drawn in the comic as a blonde white woman. On Syfy’s “The Magicians,” the role of Penny is played by Indian-American actor Arjun Gupta; in the book, the character is described as having a fair complexion.

“Battlestar Galactica” was reinvented in 2004 with a number of transformations within its cast and its plot. One was to cast Grace Park, a American woman of Korean heritage, as Boomer, a part originated by Herbert Jefferson Jr., a black actor. (This is in addition to a major gender bend, casting Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck, a character originally played by Dirk Benedict).

“For me it's about the specificity of that character,” Owusu-Breen said. “I mean there's a million stories you can tell with a black girl and a million backstories: she could be rich or she could be poor. But to me it's about giving a character's specific history and life that you then bring into the story. Now, to say that race wouldn't have a different point of view is false. You do look at the world differently a little bit, based on where you are, who you are, how the world sees you, how the outside world treats you by virtue of whatever history you’re coming into a situation with."

If they are black in America, she explains, there's a different backstory. “But I do feel like, you need to let your character be true to the world we live in.”

Grillo-Marxuach has seen and experienced both sides of the argument. “I can understand how there may be an impulse to want to cast Latinx actors in roles and then say we're not going to necessarily lean into their ‘of color’-ness, because we want them to just be.”

He offers an example in ABC Family (now known as Freeform) picking up his comic book “The Middleman” as series.

“They came to me and said, ‘We want the character to be Latinx.’ And I told them no.” The executives were shocked, he recalls, and wondered why Grillo-Marxuach would not want to represent his heritage. “I said, ‘Look, I don't care who we cast in the lead role as long as I don't have to change a line of dialogue.' Because as a Latinx creator, the character really is me: I’m Puerto Rican.

“I just didn't want to have to cast someone Latinx, and have to sort of write what I call ‘rice and beans’ in order to convince the world that she deserved to be Latinx, “ he continued. “I didn't want her to break into Spanish when she became angry or to ever use the word ‘papi’ with her boyfriend. I told them very specifically, ‘if you promise me that you're never going to ask me for that, then I'll gladly cast a Latinx.' Because she speaks the way that I speak about the things that I care about.”

“The Middleman,” though low-rated, ended up as a cult favorite that gave its star Natalie Morales her break-out role.

But Grillo-Marxuach’s experience in making an intellectual property he originated into a series is increasingly difficult to do at the moment when there are hundreds of series struggling to be noticed. As such, this speaks to the frustration voiced by viewers who may wonder why there are fewer stories written for leads of color, telling original stories by and about people of color, being greenlit to series. The answer is brand recognition.

“We as a culture are very savvy and we understand a lot more people understand how television works, and a lot more people understand it well enough to be discontent that there isn't enough ‘originality,’” he said. “But if it's casting a Latinx Magnum or casting three Latinxs [on ‘Charmed’] is what gets mainstream America used to seeing Latinx people on television, I'm OK with that. Is it perfect? No. But I mean, name me anything that is.”

Consider an upcoming title from Kenya Barris, creator of “Black-ish” and its Freeform spin-off, “Grown-ish,” who recently departed ABC to sign a deal with Netflix. His final project under development with ABC is a revival of “Bewitched,”co-written by "Black-ish" producer Yamara Taylor, in which Samantha is a black single mom — and a witch — who marries Darren, a white guy and a slacker.

“Black-ish” made a lot of noise prior to its debut due to its provocative title but once it debuted the controversy faded into background noise. Although the series has a loyal viewership, it’s also a modest one compared to other comedies, including existing titles on ABC. Reviving “Roseanne,” however, gave ABC its highest ratings in nearly two decades. A “Bewitched” revival is unlikely to hit such viewership heights, but it may gain more attention than other new titles that lack a pop culture pedigree or the benefit of having run in syndicated repeats for eons.

Such familiarity worked wonders for Netflix’s reboot of Norman Lear’s '70s-era sitcom “One Day at a Time,” featuring a Cuban-American single mother raising two kids on her own with the help of their vivacious grandmother, played by Rita Moreno.

Co-showrunner and creator Gloria Calderón Kellett views the opportunity of using an established title to tell a modern story as a blessing. “In this climate, as a creator, what you want is to be able to do the job. You want to be able to tell the stories,” Kellett said in a recent interview at a press event. “For me, I knew one day I would write about my family. I didn't know what that would look like.”

Partnering with Lear and her co-showrunner Mike Royce felt comfortable, and she knew they would protect her story along the way. It also helped that fewer people were familiar with “One Day at a Time” than Lear’s other series. “We did our own thing with it, and I think we took something that a lot of people didn't really know... I mean, I feel like ‘Charmed’ was in my lifetime. But I didn't know the original ‘One Day at a Time.’ It came out the year I was born," Kellett said. "So I think maybe we've reintroduced something in a different way.”

Could she have written her show without the “One Day at a Time” branding? Sure. But in terms of getting eyeballs, being recognizable is imperative. 

“Had I gone in with Mike and been like, ‘We're going to do a family show,’ I don't know if [Netflix] would've bought it,” Kellett conceded.

Success depends on overall execution, as with any other series. Striving for some measure of authenticity in developing these characters plays a part in that. The producers of these new series acknowledged this in recent network presentations at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour.

“We’ve had a chance to see three white witches and it obviously, coming off of ‘Jane,’ I know so much more about what it means to see yourself on screen, see yourself represented, and see yourself be the hero of a story, and that was really important to us,” said Urman. “I haven’t felt the 'not white' backlash. I felt the ‘this is not the same story that was once told’ backlash.”

The executive producers of “Magnum P.I.” also told reporters attending CBS’s TCA panels that the character’s heritage will play a part in the series. “We’re certainly not denying the fact that he’s Latino,” executive producer Eric Guggenheim said. “It is something that is acknowledged, and we plan to acknowledge it throughout the series.”

Kellett and Grillo-Marxuach see value in the visibility these established titles are giving actors of color, and the potential to amplify those voices along with other minority-fronted stories.

“The long view of it is that whatever problematic aspects many of these things may have, at the end of the day there is finally a Latinx Magnum. He is driving a Ferrari. He's busting bad guys in Hawaii. And that's not something that existed when I was growing up, you know?” Grillo-Marxuach said.

Speaking to her work on “One Day at a Time,” Kellett said, “By existing we are a political show. By existing and having a brown family on television, telling these stories, we are in people's homes, humanizing the Latinx experience. . . In this mortal coil, if we can put a little positivity into the world, humanize the Latinx experience and give people a laugh while they talk about stuff, that's my goal. With everything that I do. Forever.”

Salon Stage: Masego

Listen to this reimagined rendition of Masego's song "Queen Tings" .

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Cbs Charmed Editor's Picks Magnum P.i. Netflix One Day At A Time The Cw Tom Selleck Tv