These scenes in TV shows aren’t just quick twists ripped from title titles in the centuries-old tradition of prime time television. They are part of a deeper behind-the-scenes effort to shape new immigrant characters and plots.
And a defense group known as Define American is leading the charge.
Their hope: that changing conversations in Hollywood writers’ rooms will pave the way for Washington to change immigration policy as well.
“This is a long-term job,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American. “It’s not like, ‘How do we go through a bill next month?’ This is: “How do we create a culture where we see immigrants as people deserving of dignity?”
When he first arrived in the United States from the Philippines in the 1990s, Vargas says that, like many immigrants, he got to know his new home by watching TV.
“When we come to this country, our most effective teacher is the television screen. … The way I speak is because of all the TV and all the popular culture I’ve consumed,” he says. “For me, the most effective way to become an American was to be exposed to the media.”
Now the organization he founded is turning this idea upside down.
So far, says Vargas, Define American has consulted on 75 film and television projects across 22 networks.
The organization says the stories it formed on have appeared on NBC’s “Superstore”, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy”, OWN’s “Queen Sugar” and CW’s “Roswell, New Mexico”. And they hope the list grows.
Just as “Frasier”, “The Golden Girls” and “Will & Grace” helped him learn about American slang and society, Vargas says that a new generation of television shows can also be a bridge – this time helping Americans to better understand immigrants’ stories.
The view from inside the writers’ room
The first time she spoke to the writers of “Superstore”, Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees felt like she had to break the tough news.
One season on the NBC sitcom, which portrays the lives of workers inside a department store, the writers had taken a prominent character’s plot arc in a direction they hadn’t anticipated at the start of the show: Mateo, who is gay, fiercely competitive and proud of his Filipino heritage, he discovered he was undocumented.
And the show’s writers were trying to figure out what to do next.
“They had a lot of questions,” says Voorhees, a former reality TV showrunner who is now Define American’s chief strategy officer. Their main concern: “How do we get them citizenship?”
On that day, he says, the Define American team explained that the writers’ main question may be impossible to answer for Mateo, just as it is for millions of undocumented immigrants to the United States.
“That it might not be possible to solve that storyline in one season, in a few episodes, or even in multiple seasons,” says Voorhees.
It was a message the writers took to heart, according to Justin Spitzer, the show’s creator and then showrunner.
“I wouldn’t want to tell a story where, for example, Mateo finds this funny way that totally works and makes him a citizen. And none of this is true. I don’t think it’s good for society that we’re spreading the wrong message.” says Spitzer, now the show’s executive producer.
“I think as a spectator, if I’m watching something and even once, I see them saying that something is possible that I know it’s impossible, that show has largely lost me.”
Instead, he says, Define American’s guidance – coupled with insights from immigration lawyers and even someone who worked at ICE – helped writers shape stories rooted in reality.
Define American would bring groups of undocumented immigrants into the writers’ room, he says, spurring ideas for entire episodes with each conversation.
“It’s become an amazing resource for us.… Organizations like this are great. They can answer questions, but by just sitting down and talking, we can come up with stories we haven’t even dreamed of before,” he says.
An example: an episode of the show’s second season in which Mateo, desperate for a solution to his immigration problems, tries to convince the people in the shop to attack him so that he can be entitled to a visa for crime victims.
The sixth season of “Superstore” will premiere on NBC this month. Mateo is not yet a citizen.
Awareness is growing
Today’s television landscape is dotted with immigrant plots.
“The Transplant” on NBC features a Syrian doctor fleeing his war-torn country and starts over as a doctor. Streaming programs on Netflix like “Never Have I Ever” and “Kim’s Convenience” portray immigrant parents with comedy and heart. “One Day at a Time”, scheduled to begin airing this month on CBS, features Rita Moreno as the immigrant matriarch of a Cuban-American family. On Cinemax, “Warrior” tells stories of Chinese immigrant life in 19th century San Francisco.
Popular programs that recently ended their run, such as “Orange is the New Black” or “Jane the Virgin,” have been praised for the immigrant storylines they have incorporated into their final seasons.
“There’s a greater awareness than we’ve probably ever seen before.… People are interested in telling different stories. They are interested in telling stories that haven’t been told before they can really hit the mark,” says Voorhees.
But shows with more nuanced portrayals of immigrants like “Superstore”, “One Day at a Time” or “Warrior” are still not the norm, says Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.”
“We’re not telling good stories about immigrants … There are groups we’re not talking about because of our stereotypes about who undocumented immigrants are,” he says.
How immigrants on TV differ from reality
This is something the leaders of Define American say they have found in their research as well.
Their analysis of 129 immigrant characters in 59 scripted shows from the 2018-2019 television season found that half of the immigrant characters on TV were Latinx, a figure roughly in line with reality. But they also found that, proportionately, Middle Eastern immigrants were overrepresented on television, making up about 10% of immigrant characters on TV while making up only 4% of the US immigrant population. About 12% of immigrants on TV are Asian and Pacific Island immigrants, but that group is estimated to make up about 26% of the U.S. immigrant population.
“The plot right now, over the past couple of years, in the minds of Hollywood – and I think the larger United States – is that undocumented immigrants are the same as Latinx,” Yuen says. “The reality is that there are also Asian and African undocumented migrants who are also vulnerable and in need of support.”
Correcting imbalances like these, says Vargas, is something Define American tries to do in his work.
“We need different stories,” says Vargas, “so that we can get to a point where the narrative has been created that this is an issue that impacts all races and ethnicities.”
And that, he says, could impact far beyond the screen any program is streaming on.
Because the shows we see are important
Do the shows we watch on TV affect what we do in real life?
For Vargas and others at Define American, this is a key question.
And they say a recent survey they conducted as part of their study revealed promising results.
“What about people who have no contact with immigrants?” Sarah Lowe, head of research at Define American, asked Hollywood writers at a recent studio presentation event. “Our results show that your work can actually make a difference for those people too.
“Just like the impact ‘Will & Grace’ has had with the LGBT movement, for regular ‘Superstore’ viewers, Mateo feels like their friend. They feel like they know him, even if they don’t know any other immigrants. in their daily life. ”
And the study found that “Superstore” viewers who felt that sense of friendship with Mateo, but had little or no real-life contact with immigrants, were more likely to support an increase in immigrants arriving in the United States. .
For Vargas, Define American’s recent analysis of the “Superstore” character’s impact sends an important message.
“The images we see in the media are often crying immigrants, sad immigrants, tragic immigrants, as if we have this veil of tragedy all around us, when in reality, the study showed, when you actually present an immigrant in a three-dimensional way as a person. , people are pushed to action, to tell another friend, to post something on social media, “he says.
And that’s one of the main reasons Define American will continue to push behind the scenes.