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From 'This Is Us' To 'Master Of None,' The Year's Groundbreaking TV Shows

Dec 17, 2017
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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

We're going to take a moment now to talk about some of the year's groundbreaking moments in television - well, groundbreaking according to our very own TV critic Eric Deggans. And a warning - this conversation may contain some spoilers, so if you're not caught up on "This Is Us" or "Master Of None," close your ears for a few minutes. Eric, welcome to the program.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

SUAREZ: The first show you want to talk about is "This Is Us." What was the groundbreaking moment for you?

DEGGANS: So to set the scene, this show is about three people born on the same day. Two of them are biological siblings. One of them is adopted into the family. And the one who's adopted into the family is an African-American male named Randall, and he has spent his life looking for his biological father. He finds him in the first season but then also loses him to cancer. And it comes at the end of this poignant episode that we saw in the middle of this year where they had spent time in his dad's Memphis home town. And then finally, the father, William, passes away in the hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")

RON CEPHAS JONES: (As William Hill) You deserved the beautiful life you've made. You deserve everything, Randall, my beautiful boy.

DEGGANS: That's Ron Cephas playing William. And Sterling K. Brown played Randall. And this is just amazing work, two great actors working together. And fathers and sons are always a complicated business but especially for black men, who are so often separated. And so to see this storyline play out on a major successful TV drama, it was wonderful to see and very poignant.

SUAREZ: Eric, what show do you want to talk about next?

DEGGANS: Well, I want to talk about the Thanksgiving episode of "Master Of None." Now, this is the Netflix series starring Aziz Ansari, who a character close to himself - a performer who's trying to make it. But his best friend is an African-American woman who's gay, played by Lena Waithe. And this Thanksgiving episode shows the two of them hanging out together on successive Thanksgivings. They're best friends from high school. And she slowly starts to realize that she's gay and that she wants to come out to her mother, who's a very traditional, very strong black woman played by Angela Bassett.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTER OF NONE")

LENA WAITHE: (As Denise) Mom, I'm gay. Mom, why you crying?

ANGELA BASSETT: (As Catherine) I just - I don't want life to be hard for you. It is hard enough being a black woman in this world, now you want to add something else to that?

WAITHE: (As Denise) It's not like this was my choice.

DEGGANS: Now, Aziz Ansari asked Lena Waithe to co-write this episode because he said, you know, it's your story. You can tell it better than anyone. She won a comedy writing Emmy with him for this episode, the first black woman to win a comedy writing Emmy. It's so authentic and such a great exploration of a story that is not often told well.

SUAREZ: Now, the last show on your list is more of a one-woman show, right?

DEGGANS: Yeah. This is a show called "The Rundown With Robin Thede" that's on BET. People may remember Robin. She was the head writer for Larry Wilmore Show's on Comedy Central, "The Nightly Show." BET has given her a similar show but it's from the perspective of a black woman. And this show is drenched in black culture. Slate called it like black Twitter on TV and it is definitely that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RUNDOWN WITH ROBIN THEDE")

ROBIN THEDE: Attorney General Jeff Sessions has plans to solve America's opioid crisis, but the consequences are coming for black people faster than a killer in a horror flick.

DEGGANS: So you can hear, Robin is talking about the politics of the moment but talking about it from the perspective of someone who's steeped in black culture. And even though some of the other shows, especially "The Daily Show," have done a good job of including the perspectives of people of color, Robin is an expert at writing the stuff from the ground floor. And she's an amazing TV talent, too. She's very engaging. And people don't expect a show like this on BET, so I was really glad to see them try it.

SUAREZ: Is there a new show coming in 2018 you're excited about?

DEGGANS: I'm a comic book geek, so the CW is going to do a show called "Black Lightning." It's going to be the first of the modern superhero TV shows to feature a black character, so I can't wait to see that. And FX is going to do "The Assassination Of Gianni Versace" as the next installment of its "American Crime Story" anthology. And people who remember when they did OJ Simpson and what a great show that was can't wait to see what they do with this story of a designer who was murdered in Miami.

SUAREZ: And unlike the bad old days, if you miss it, you'll be able to watch it over the next 40 years over some device. That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks a lot. Happy holiday.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me. Same to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.