I don’t Watch Much Network TV, but When I Do, it’s NBC: Kenan, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, The Blacklist, Oh My!

Director Cooper, Agent Ressler, and Agent Park in The Blacklist, season 8 episode 4 (Source: NBC)

It’s funny, it wasn’t until I was figuring out the title of this blog post after watching the pilot of Kenan that I realised this truth: The only network TV I’m watching on a week to week basis right now is from NBC. That wouldn’t be true if Supernatural hadn’t recently ended its 15-year run, but here we are. WandaVision doesn’t count as network TV because, as far as I know, it’s only on Disney+. Whenever Brooklyn Nine-Nine returns for its final season, I’ll still be sticking to NBC.

I’ve been talking bits and pieces about Zoey and Kenan on my personal Facebook account, but I decided I wanted to branch out a little and share some of my thoughts on my blog too. Avatar: The Last Airbender can’t be the only TV show that gets my attention here!

When I was a teenager and in university (college, for my American audience), I used to watch a lot more movies and TV than I do now. Once you grow up and get married (which I did, like, 4 months after finishing my second university course) and have kids and other life responsibilities, you tend to have less time for things like that. Or, at least, I did. It was one of those things that, for a long time, I placed blame on my ex-husband for because he preferred me to spend my free time doing something “productive” (like, say, household chores) rather than something fun, unless we were doing the fun thing together, so I’d feel guilty most times I wanted to do something fun without him. He didn’t really like me watching things without him, but he had less free time than I had, and he wasn’t always interested in watching the same things I wanted to watch.

Regardless of whether or not I fairly blamed my ex-husband for my lack of media consumption over the years, my desire to please him by mainly watching things together definitely reduced the content I consumed. For example, I didn’t even finish episode 1 of Luke Cage on Netflix, even though I wanted to watch the whole series, because I tried to watch it with my ex and he complained it was “unrealistic” because it was all “about Black people” and “where are the white people?” even though it’s set in Harlem, New York. Sorry, dude, media shouldn’t revolve solely around white people’s stories, and white people aren’t the only people consuming media, so it shouldn’t be tailored exclusively for a white audience. I’m not sure if he was being deliberately antagonistic to me and/or trying to be facetious when he said things like that (after all, his favourite music genre is jazz, and you can’t have jazz without Black people) or if he actually believed the things that came out of his mouth that sounded racist to me, but I’m autistic and generally take people’s words literally and at face value, and as someone who prefers diversity in the media I consume, it bothered me that I couldn’t watch many of the things I wanted to watch with him without him finding something to complain about. And that’s the main reason this is even relevant for me to bring up, because the NBC shows I’ll be discussing soon cover diversity reasonably well.

Side note: I do plan to eventually get around to watching Luke Cage, and I’ve read Luke Cage comics, but there’s only so much time in the week, and habits formed when I was married can still be hard to fight sometimes. There are still days I feel guilty when I spend “too much” time consuming entertainment content (movies/TV/video games/comic books), even though I need it, as an autistic person, to continue thriving, because it helps me relax and gives me energy and motivation.

Kenan

Kenan promo photo (Source: NBC)

I first learned of Kenan through ads on my ad-supported Hulu subscription while watching the next show I’ll talk about, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (you mean ads for TV still work? IKR?) about 2-3 weeks before the pilot aired on Feb 16th. But before I talk about the show, I want to include some backstory. Growing up in Australia, with only free-to-air TV, I didn’t get access to much Nickelodeon TV. We had all the cartoons like Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys, Hey Arnold!, Ahh! Real Monsters, Catdog, Rocko’s Modern Life, etc (Wow, I really watched a lot of Nickelodeon cartoons in the 90s), but we didn’t get the Nick shows with live actors. When I visited the US with my family in 1998, I discovered Good Burger and Kenan and Kel while watching cable at my Grandma’s house. Lord knows how many times I watched those things (especially Good Burger—I even have it on DVD, which I asked my mum to buy for me on a subsequent trip I didn’t go on). I LOVED them. Years later, I was none too surprised that Kenan Thompson ended up on Saturday Night Live, though I don’t watch it much beyond clips here and there (I’m mostly partial to Kate McKinnon sketches, but I do see Kenan’s every now and then too). Still, because of that adolescent nostalgia, when I saw the ads on Hulu, I got curious enough to find out when the pilot would be airing.

The basic premise: Kenan is a single father with two daughters whose wife passed away about a year prior to the events in episode one. He is the host of a morning TV show, and his wife was also a TV star. His father-in-law lives with him to help with his children.

Episode one deals with Kenan trying to deal with and/or overcome the grief over the loss of his wife. You know, it’s a sitcom, and whilst I haven’t watched, like, almost any new network TV sitcoms in over a decade (except for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I’ll discuss later on in this post, and a few episodes of the first season of Fresh off the Boat), from the TV I used to watch, in general, we’re shown that men aren’t very good at dealing with their emotions. So, on that note, I really appreciated how the show actually treated Kenan-the-character and demonstrated some real authenticity and how to try to process things in a healthier way than I’m used to seeing on TV.

SPOILER ALERT (skip this next paragraph to avoid spoilers)

Another thing I really, really LOVED, and I honestly don’t know how they succeeded in covering this so well that it made me laugh, was how they talked about the history of how Kenan and his wife met—they were on the same TV show, and she played his mother, even though they were actually only three years apart in age. They addressed it as Kenan says, “I got the baby face” and one of his daughters, Aubrey, adds, “And all women over 21 play moms because Hollywood is sexist AF.” I love it when Hollywood gets called on stuff like this—yes, even when it’s Hollywood calling itself out. Of course there are exceptions to the ages various actors can play. Like, I know if I had continued to pursue acting, I doubt I’d get cast in that “mom” role, despite being one primarily because, even at 37, like Kenan, I still kinda got that “baby face” look. No one meeting me for the first time would assume I’m the mother of a 14-year-old just from looking at me. When I was still working as a tour guide just a year ago, I had passengers think I was still a young college student all the time.

END SPOILER PARAGRAPH

In the non-spoiler description, I gotta say, I find I enjoy seeing TV that addresses criticisms in society and the way television/media functions in a way that is palpable and palatable, and Kenan does that well so far. The next show I’m about to discuss does a pretty good job of it, too. Overall, I enjoyed the pilot and I look forward to seeing where the series goes.

How to watch (US): Hulu (subscription), NBC app (free), Peacock app (free), NBC Live TV Tuesdays 8:30pm EST.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

Simon and Zoey (Source: Screenshot from season 2 episode 6: Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning)

I started watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, in part, because it’s set in San Francisco and the pilot film shoot shut down North Beach on one of my tour guide workdays, which meant a route change that we had to explain to our guests, since one of our usual hop-on hop-off bus stops was closed. I continued watching it because as a woman who studied computer science, I’m familiar with the gender disparity in tech and I was curious how they’d cover that (Zoey is a software engineer), and also I love musicals on TV (Glee was one of the few TV shows I consistently watched when I lived in Malaysia and continued to watch until it finished once I moved to California). The premise of how they handle the singing in this show—somehow Zoey has a special power where she imagines people singing their innermost thoughts and feelings at her—amuses me. But they’re also pretty good with diverse characters (race, body type, age, sexuality(ish)), and handling sensitive and/or difficult topics. Grief has been a big one—for pretty much all of season one, and a good chunk of season two so far.

SPOILER ALERT (skip this next paragraph to avoid spoilers)

However, the big topic that I’m just impressed they dared to tackle at all, let alone managed to handle as well as I did, was covered across the two most recent episodes before they went on hiatus for a month and a half. Season two, episodes 5 & 6 tackled racism in tech in the most extraordinary way I’ve ever seen conveyed in media. Not only did they call it out exactly how I’ve heard it exists (I do not personally work in tech at the moment so I can’t speak from experience, though I just finished a data analytics boot camp so I am looking to break into the industry, and just today attended a webinar panel on the subject of Diversity in Tech to learn more), but they did a pretty good job of demonstrating exactly how to improve it, structurally, in tech companies. I am really looking forward to seeing where they go to from here. This can be a really touchy subject for some people, and discussing this subject will never be perfect, but they seem to be handling it with care and compassion. It is sending the message, “It does not have to be this way” and “We can do better.” I know nothing about the writers of the show but I was impressed. They also managed fairly well to avoid pursuing the white saviour trope, by painting our hero of Zoey as fallible (she doesn’t handle the racism issue right the first time, and that’s normal and doesn’t mean she should just give up trying to listen, understand, and do better, which is unfortunately a common reality—i.e. the proverbial white people sticking their fingers in their ears and pretending they’re not even a little bit racist and things aren’t actually as bad as people of colour tell them it is), and they scolded the company’s CEO when he attempted to play white saviour. Now, I know I’m white myself so I may not be the best judge of this sort of thing as a result, but I do try and spend a decent amount of time to read and listen to voices of people of colour to gain a deeper understanding of issues I have no personal experience with. As a white person watching Zoey screw up here, it felt relatable and, hopefully, encouraging for other white people to be more forgiving of themselves and keep trying when they screw up themselves. No one is perfect when it comes to discussing issues regarding race, and we all have our blind spots, but discussion needs to continue because that’s how we learn and improve. We can’t keep sweeping systemic issues under the rug and pretend they don’t exist.

END SPOILER PARAGRAPH

The show also has some elements of a will-they/won’t-they love triangle between Zoey and two men in her life. I personally favour Simon, but this is also one of those situations where… once Simon and Max have the chance to get to know each other, I can’t help but wonder if polyamory might’ve been an option for this trio to consider. I may not consider myself polyamorous any more, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see opportunity for it to be explored in media where it makes sense for the characters. Instead of following Hollywood’s stereotypical love triangle story where there has to be a “winner” and a “loser.”

All of the major characters feel really well developed, be they Zoey’s family, friends, and colleagues, and of course Zoey herself.

How to watch (US): Hulu (subscription), NBC app (free), Peacock app (free), NBC Live TV, returning Sunday March 28th, 9pm EST.

The Blacklist

Reddington and Aram in season 8, episode 6: The Wellstone Agency (Source: NBC)

Now in its 8th season, The Blacklist is the longest-running TV series I’m currently consistently watching and started watching when it first aired (and since it first aired in 2013, that means I watched the first season back when I still lived in Malaysia, which sounds right but my memory is a little hazy there). The Blacklist originally appealed to me primarily because I adored James Spader in Boston Legal and Secretary, and wanted to see him in something new. So, I was drawn in by James Spader, but I stayed for the storytelling and the characters, the mystery and intrigue.

The premise: Spader plays Reddington, the #1 criminal on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, who turns himself in to become essentially an informant. He helps the FBI find the biggest criminals who aren’t even necessarily on their radar, while continuing to do all his crimes with immunity. Mostly he gives them cases that help him in some way do his own crimes. But he also has a what starts out as a mysterious connection to one of the task force’s FBI agents, Elizabeth Keen.

One of the things I really love about this show is the casting. Whilst Reddington, Keen, Keen’s husband (when he was still part of the show), and one other FBI agent are white, pretty much every other major character in the show is not. They had characters of Middle Eastern descent as part of the “good guys” team in a time where it seemed hard to find that in Western media, because Muslims were still being consistently demonised in various news cycles. Black characters aren’t just “bad guys” either—Director Cooper, who runs the FBI’s task force is Black, and whilst Reddington’s right hand man, Dembe, is also Black, he’s also a man of faith and has some complicated internal struggles he deals with, rather than being your stereotypical one-dimensional “bad guy” Black character. I just love how they push those stereotypes aside and just deliver us great, interesting characters. Aram is such a sweetheart and I’ve loved seeing how his character has grown and changed over the series. It’s so easy to have crushes on so many of the well developed characters in the show. I have absolutely had crushes on Aram, Samar, and Tom Keen in particular.

Most of season 8 so far has had me asking WTF? because they’ve flipped the narrative on its head so much, and yet it’s been a long progression that still sort of makes sense.

There was a period when I fell behind on my regular watching of The Blacklist. Looking up my Netflix history, looks like I watched it there from season 4 episode 18 through until the end of season 7 (I caught up on season 6 while season 7 was still airing, but not enough of season 7 was available for me to watch online from the beginning of the season, so I had to wait until it was on Netflix). Now that I’m single, it’s a lot easier for me to keep up-to-date with regular viewings because I get to make my own schedule without compromising with a romantic partner, and I love being able to watch this show on a week to week basis because it helps build the tension of the show. But it’s totally binge-worthy too, considering I watched a few seasons that way.

How to watch (US): seasons 1-7 are currently on Netflix. I watch season 8 weekly on the NBC app. It airs live on NBC TV Fridays 8pm EST.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Brooklyn Nine-Nine promo (Source: Hulu)

Okay, so technically Brooklyn Nine-Nine started on Fox, but I didn’t start watching it until it was cancelled there and I learned how cool the show was, and chose to watch it in part because I’d heard there was a character who was very clearly bisexual, and bisexual characters don’t get a whole lot of good representation on TV. As a bisexual person myself, I always want to see more great bisexual representation. Prior to NBC resurrecting this show, I pretty much bingewatched all 5 seasons with my ex-husband’s ex-girlfriend who lived with us. It was pretty much the only thing we did together, but helped us develop a better friendship. Then we continued to watch it together as it aired, until she moved out, and I watched the rest without her.

I think that when I add this to my list, it’s pretty easy to get a sense of what I like to watch. Like The Blacklist, Brooklyn Nine-Nine also has a Black boss. I adore Captain Holt as a character, and I connected with him so much that at one point I was theorising that he’s autistic too, and was searching online to see if anyone else felt the same way. I love how they cover his experiences with discrimination as he rose through the ranks, not just because of his race, but also sexuality. The whole cast is pretty great in terms of diversity, and it’s never felt like they were tokenising any of the characters, possibly in part because they have multiple characters of the same racial/gender identities with very different personalities. They also manage to successfully tackle a lot of sensitive topics with humour that works, and treat their characters with respect—yeah, even when they’re being weirdos. As a self-identified weirdo, I very much appreciate that.

With Black Lives Matter marches last year taking over the whole world, there had been some question whether or not Brooklyn Nine-Nine would survive, or be worth continuing given those events. I believe I read something about how they plan to tackle some of the issues raised by that movement in the next season. But, given that, I was also not too surprised to learn of the recent announcement that the upcoming season 8 will be the last. I am absolutely curious to see how they cover Black Lives Matter, though.

How to watch (US): All 7 seasons are currently available on Hulu (subscription).

Conclusion

I haven’t intentionally stuck to NBC shows, although I think accessibility to watch NBC shows for free without live TV on a weekly basis might be a little easier than some of the other networks. I recall struggling in the past with Once Upon a Time (ABC) and Hawaii Five-O (CBS). CW’s app is pretty good for their shows, but Supernatural was the only thing I watched on it. If I was more of a DC person than Marvel, perhaps that would be different, but I haven’t felt drawn to watch those shows. Also, bear in mind this blog post just covers the network produced TV I currently follow. In recent years, I’ve also watched a decent amount of made-for-streaming-services TV such as Runaways (Hulu), The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), Sex Education (Netflix), Sense8 (Netflix), Stranger Things (Netflix), Jessica Jones (Netflix), The Mandalorian (Disney+), and WandaVision (Disney+), shows I’m behind on like Orange is the New Black (Netflix), and Bojack Horseman (Netflix), and I’m currently working my way through Another Life (Netflix) with a friend.

There is still a lot of TV I want to catch up on. I’m currently also working my way through my backlog of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (I watched season 1 in Malaysia but hadn’t continued it when I moved to the US, so I’m only a few episodes into season 2 at the moment), and I’ve also been re-watching Legend of Korra with my kids (we’re 3 out of 4 seasons down now). I want to get back to Hawaii Five-O—at least until Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park left (they played my favourite characters on the show so I fully supported their decision to leave because they weren’t being respected enough to be paid more). However, as you can see, I have a pretty diverse taste of genres for TV, and what I really love more than anything else is rich (as in deep/three-dimensional, not wealthy) and diverse characters, and storytelling that covers complex themes and issues. So based on that, I’d love to hear some other TV recommendations in the comments for things you think I should check out. Tell me what you love about them and why you think I would, too!

Overall, I’m not sure I’m really saying anything new here that I haven’t blogged about in the past, but I am glad TV today—at least in the content I consume—is doing a better job with racial diversity than it has in the past, and I think that’s thanks to people having the conversations and raising the issues. I don’t think it’s that difficult for white people to identify with and relate to at least some traits of characters of colour, and I think that’s important and needed in order for white people who are born and raised in predominantly white neighborhoods to be more empathetic towards those who don’t look like them, so they can be better allies and, perhaps, stop being so defensive when they get called out for saying something unintentionally racist (at least, I feel like it’s helped me, and I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood). Positive representations in the media is how we help combat negative media representations and therefore automated biased reactions and false assumptions. If you’re white and not actively consuming media with diverse characters, then do your part to find the media with diverse characters you like. Not all of it will be to your tastes. As I mentioned in a show I guested on this week (see below), I’m not really into rap and hip hop, but you know, that doesn’t mean there’s no appeal for others.

If you’d like to hear and see me talk about that and some other recent movie & TV news, check out my friend and NYC based improviser Mike Brown’s Gotta Love Them Movies on YouTube, where I was a guest this past Tuesday, and may be a guest again in the future (he invited me back but hasn’t figured out dates yet).


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