Television’s Sidekicks of Color

Author’s note: This post originally appeared on I Fry Mine in Butter in June 2011. 

Feeling somewhat blue in the doldrums of summer reruns and the NFL off season, I gladly tuned in last year to see the then-new show, Royal Pains. It was about an E.R. doctor who gets unjustly fired from his job for helping a sicker but less wealthy patient, and winds up going into extremely private practice for the extremely wealthy in the Hamptons, New York. Catch the irony there? It’s subtle, I know.

It was enjoyable enough, with Mark Feuerstein as the good doctor Hank Lawson (son of being lawful, get it?), Paolo Costanzo as his well intentioned, extremely frustrating brother Evan, and Reshma Shetty as Divya Katdare, a woman of Indian heritage who secretly becomes a physician’s assistant, hiding her vocation from her family. Watching through the season, it was her character who supported the brothers through Evan’s monotony of stupid schemes—how his character didn’t take the grand prize in the Darwin Awards, I have no idea—and Hank’s challenging sense of insecurity to become the backbone of “Hank Med,” Evan’s stupid name for the practice. She reminded me a bit of Stephanie Zimbalist in Remington Steele, although Hank was by most measures not a complete charlatan.

Then the fall rolled around and I took in the premiere of The Good Wife,which I’ve written about on here twice now. And lo and behold, in the midst of the fictional Florrick Sex Scandal of 2009, there’s a cutting-edge investigator at the defense attorney firm: an Indian woman, Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Panjabi. Wait a minute, my brain fired at me. Is this just coincidence? What’s going on here with the sidekickery?

On the one hand, women of color rarely get leads on television, be they comedies, dramas, or dramadies—a moniker I’m really not fond of, but will use here for purposes of a shortcut, which this em dash break no longer provides—so it’s not surprising to see them in at the second-tier level. But something else was going on, at least in these two instances. It was almost as if someone on the writing staff realized that these women—the characters as well as the actresses—get short shrift on TV.

Divya remarks more than once that she is holding the brothers together, even when say, a restaurant owner is down and Hank is nowhere near the scene, and she has to provide care until more help arrives, all while Evan is melting down emotionally. When it comes out that Divya is supposed to be engaged in the old-fashioned arranged way, she cuts Evan down for dissing her entire heritage, rather than being supportive of her in the midst of her predicament. Meanwhile, over onThe Good Wife, Kalinda corrects Juliana Marguiles’ character, Alicia Florrick, for making presumptions about her Indian family. Florrick responds, “my bad,” which is both nice to see and a bit eye-roll-inducing, since that’s what my 16-year-old niece does when she’s just cussed someone out and gotten caught.

I started thinking about sidekicks more generally. Was it just these two shows? Something in the water that year? Something I’d been missing for a long time? I went and did some legwork. The first thing I learned was that typing “sidekicks of color” into Google returns one with a lot of hits on phones called Sidekicks, and all the colors in which they are produced.

Westerns certainly often go for the Native American sidekick, like Tonto or Little Beaver, Red Ryder’s friend. Little Beaver is not a name they’re going to use in primetime these days, I don’t think. And don’t forget the favorite Latino sidekick of the Western stage: Pancho. But that was 1950, that Cisco Kid show. So also were Roy Rogers and Red Ryder from the 1950s. We were like total ignoramusses on race then. Heck, we even have a Barack Obama in the White House now! We don’t have racism anymore, surely.

Let’s flash forward a few decades. Die Hard. Thanks, black cop who’s afraid to use his gun because he missed so exquisitely badly the last time, for hanging with the white guy on the phone, while he does all of the hard work of walking on broken glass and swinging out of buildings and exploding helicopters with his MacGyver intelligence. Yeah, you get a good shot off at the end. Way to break a sweat there. Nice depiction, writers. You fail on this sidekick creation. Okay, okay, that was a movie, some folks may cry foul. But we also had ER, in which Eriq LaSalle played a distant and unlikeable sidekick to Anthony Edwards’ vulnerable and very appealing Doctor Greene, at the start of the series and honestly, the actors of color in secondary roles only got more numerous as the seasons elapsed.

But I don’t have to point just to the 80s and 90s. This season we had Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir on Community. Then there’s Aziz Ansari as the extremely arrogant and sexist Tom Haverford onParks and Recreation, Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, and Maulik Pancholy playing the so-subservient-his-character-doesn’t-even-have-a-last-name Jonathan on 30 Rock.And they’re all on one station, NBC. And none of their characters get taken seriously by the other characters in these shows.

I’m not sure what’s going on with the Indian ethnicity for these characters. Is Indian all the rage? Is there an agent out there really pushing these actors into these roles? Is it too challenging to laugh at African-Americans with the Obaminator in DC? Maybe nobody’s afraid of Bobby Jindal the way they fear looking racist by mocking . . . oh, I can’t even end that sentence properly. Nobody’s afraid of mocking anyone of any color. The President was called a “raghead” just last week. I wonder if South Carolina is trying to secede again, come to think of it.

It’s not progress to move on to a new ethnicity for the sidekick slot, especially if it means that 1.) the newly highlighted ethnicity is mocked or teased in the same way the last one was, and 2.) actors of other ethnicities and races have an even harder time finding work. I appreciate that Royal Pains and The Good Wifehave a bit of self-reflexivity with regard to these characters, but I worry about the overall context here.

That said, I’ll give it another season to see if I’m being too heavy-handed. But my suspicions won’t go away in the meantime.

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