In the era of #OscarsSoWhite, the network is developing a name for diversity in its original programming.
Image via Vertigo Comics
There’s been a whole lot of talk lately about diversifying the landscape in Hollywood. Last year The New York Times published a sprawling article about the challenges facing female filmmakers in Hollywood, and just last week they ran another large collection of interviews detailing what it’s like to work in the industry if you’re not a straight white man. (The short answer: deeply frustrating.)
But amidst all the talk and calls for action, fledgling cable network WGN America is putting its money where its proverbial mouth is. On the heels of its atomic bomb drama Manhattan sadly getting the ax after two seasons, WGN announced it has ordered a pilot based on the comic series Scalped, a title from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. Scalped is set on a fictional Oglala Lakota reservation and follows Dashiell “Dash” Bad Horse as he returns home after a 15-year absence to find “The Rez” sitting in the shadow of a brand new casino and overrun by drugs and organized crime. In SlashFilm’s report on the pilot, they compared the series to The Wire, and described the primary antagonist, Chief Lincoln Red Crow, as “especially fascinating” and “one of the most complicated and sympathetic comic book villains ever conceived.”
A network optioning a comic book property is hardly news these days, but WGN is, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “eyeing an all Native American cast” for the show. This report also comes two days before the network debuts Underground, a Civil War-era drama about slaves who escaped imprisonment through the Underground Railroad. Featuring a mostly black cast, the series was co-produced, co-created, and co-written by Misha Green. Green has built up her credentials on shows like Sons of Anarchy, Helix, and Heroes, and she is also a black woman, which feels a hell of a lot more appropriate than rounding up the usual suspect pool of white dudes in button-downs to tell the epic saga of slaves fleeing plantations for freedom. Underground also has John Legend on board as an executive producer and Anthony Hemingway (Shameless, American Crime Story, tons of other shows) to direct.
WGN is in a special kind of position. Scalped would be only the network’s fifth original series—a pilot for a potential sixth, based on novel Roadside Picnic, has also been ordered—which means it isn’t combating years of established programming bias to put minorities in front of and behind the camera. It’s easier to establish good habits than break bad ones, and so far the network has established itself as a home for programming about women and people of color. After all, WGN’s flagship show, Salem, is about a coven of witches in 17th-century Massachusetts.
With the cancellation of Manhattan, which was critically acclaimed even if it never found its audience, that leaves WGN with Salem as the only time-tested show on the network’s lineup. It’s pretty hard to compete in a crowded cable landscape with only one hit, but if Underground and, down the line, Scalped can catch on, WGN will have an exemplary little programming lineup that matches the rhetoric of change we’ve heard coming out of Hollywood recently. The Oscars might be “so white,” but that doesn’t mean the Emmys have to be, too.