When it comes to the hot-button issue of immigration, "One thing I think that we can all acknowledge is that there simply are not two sides to this discussion. There are a great many sides and an infinite number of stories."
So said Television Academy president and COO Maury McIntyre in welcoming Academy members and their guests to a thought-provoking exploration of how scripted television is helping to shape perspectives of migrants and the immigration crisis in the United States today.
Held November 19 at the Academy's Saban Media Center in North Hollywood, the event, "Immigration on Television: Stories from America," featured a panel discussion by actors Melinna Bobadilla (Netflix's Orange Is the New Black) and Nico Santos (NBC's Superstore); Gina Yashere, co-creator-producer-writer-actress on CBS's Bob ♥ Abishola; Nathan Varni, director of current programming, ABC; and Noelle Stewart, entertainment media manager at Define American, a non-profit media and culture organization that uses the power of storytelling to advocate for immigrants.
NBC News and MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff moderated.
According to a study of 143 sample episodes of 47 series viewed during the past two years by Define American, USC Annenberg and The Hollywood Reporter, "Immigrant characters are portrayed as less educated and more prone to criminality than is actually true," Soboroff noted.
"The truth of the matter is that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crime than native-born citizens, and legal immigrants to the United States are even less likely to do so.
"Tonight is an opportunity to increase the rest of the country's consciousness about immigrants, who we are, who all of us are; we are all immigrants. [Industry members] have a disproportionate power that changes the way that people think about this."
Scripted television likely focuses on deportation and criminality because those topics are most frequently in the news, Stewart said. "It was really important for us to do this study and showcase how underrepresented immigrants are, but also how oversimplified the narrative is, and to encourage people to dig deeper and do the work.
"Are you talking to people who've lived the experience? Are you collaborating with people who've lived the experience? What are you doing to messy up this narrative? Where are you going to complicate this narrative, and move beyond the boring, stereotypical stories that we're seeing?"
Decidedly non-stereotypical is Bob ♥ [Hearts] Abishola, a sitcom about a sock-company owner (Billy Gardell) who has a heart attack and ends up falling in love with his Nigerian hospital nurse (Folake Olowofoyeku). The idea came from producer Chuck Lorre, who wanted to do something different from his previous shows, and was inspired to feature an African woman after a trip to Africa.
With most producers white men creating shows for other white men to watch, Yashere had not been successful getting her own material on air, but Lorre and his team discovered her as a stand-up comedian and liked her background as a Londoner born to Nigerian immigrant parents who was now herself an immigrant in the U.S. They hired her to consult, which eventually led to her current roles.
"A lot of the stories within the show are directly lifted from my life, the immigrant story of coming in and trying to make a life in America," Yashere said.
It's gotten somewhat easier now to have her material seen, thanks to YouTube and streaming platforms where creators can present their own content and build their own audience, "but still, getting someone to actually put money behind your project, it's always going to be more difficult when you're female, when you're a person of color, when you're not what is considered the norm."
The sitcom Superstore took a serious turn at the end of last season, its fourth, when Mateo, the undocumented gay Filipino sales associate played by Santos, was picked up by ICE during a store raid. While in the fifth season he's back at work after being detained, he is caught up in the ongoing deportation process.
The show's producers consulted with Define American for the storyline. "In that first meeting they asked, 'Okay, so how are we getting Mateo legal?'" Stewart recalled. "And what came out of that was an understanding that he might not ever get citizenship, because that's the reality for millions of people. And how different would it be to just show him existing and living and thriving, to see what happens to someone over time?"
Santos appreciates the show's specificity, not only in the immigration storyline, but for his role's other characteristics. "If a show like mine had existed five, six, 10 years ago, it was just, 'He's Asian,' and that would be it. But now the specificity of the Philippines is incredible to me."
He feels immigration stories have come to the forefront in part because of President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric. Yashere believes such rhetoric has helped immigrants' cause on television, "because for years, nobody really wanted to talk about this stuff. Now, with the horrible rhetoric that's coming out of what's supposed to be the highest office in the land, that has made people much more open to other stories."
The story of a detained immigrant also figured prominently in the seventh and final season of Orange Is the New Black, when the show's now-privatized Litchfield Prison became the setting for an ICE detention center. As played by Bobadilla, the character Santos Chaj is a married Guatemalan woman who speaks only a Mayan language and is raped when attempting to cross the border into the U.S., resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.
"Something I wanted to draw attention to is, that's just one of the first moments of trauma and violence that we see Santos experiencing," said Bobadilla, whose character was one of several detainees introduced during the season. "I think she continues to experience that once she is in prison."
Like Mateo, Santos's future is undetermined. "I think [the creative team was] really brave and fearless in introducing this new storyline, because not everything was tied up with a neat bow," Bobadilla said.
"It's really important when we're talking about humanizing characters and complexifying someone's struggle to know everything that led up to the point that we see them, in some cases, breaking in the most oppressive and dire situations they've ever experienced. But I also think it was important to leave a little bit of limbo at the end, at least for my character, because this is the reality more often than not that the folks are actually living."
ABC's The Conners also tackled illegal immigration, when Becky Conner (Lecy Goranson) became pregnant by Emilio (Rene Rosado), an undocumented busboy at the restaurant where she is a waitress. Her father Dan (John Goodman) tells Becky one day that there have been ICE raids at restaurants; her worst fear is confirmed when Emilio phones to tell her he has been detained and will be deported to Mexico.
"This intimate story with Emilio was really interesting, because I think Dan, before meeting Emilio, would have easily said, 'You know, they're undocumented. They need to go back,'" Varni observed. "It's just such an easy answer.
"But what this did, and I think what it does for all of us when it personally touches your life in a more intimate, close way such as this, it further complicates things in terms of his opinion. And I think it shows that regardless of Dan's political beliefs, he shows great humanity here because it impacts his family. It impacts his daughter's life."
As they get to know the show, audiences are similarly warming to Bob ♥ Abishola, which enjoyed its highest same-day rating the night before the panel and has received a back-nine order from CBS.
"There are interesting characters, fresh faces on television. You never get to see African characters and you never get to see them in any kind of depth," said Yashere, pointing up a key benefit of telling non-stereotypical immigration stories.
"I think people are latching onto it because the story is beautiful. It's kindness, it's sweetness, it's love. There's empathy there. It's just a lovely story in these times. But it also features a bunch of characters that excite people, because we've never seen this before. People are hungry for good stories. As long as the story is interesting and well-written, and the characters are multifaceted, people will watch. People will be drawn to it."