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On TV, Interracial Couples In A Too-Perfect World

On NBC's Parenthood, Crosby Braverman and his fiancee, Jasmine Trussell, are so mismatched they can't even load a dishwasher without getting in a fight. He's flighty; she's focused. He's noncommittal; she makes long-range plans. Oh, and she's black, while he's a white guy.

They're one of several mixed-race couples on network TV right now; others include Mike and Lisa on Fox's Traffic Light and Alice and Alonzo on ABC's Mr. Sunshine.

But like so many interracial couples on network TV these days, Crosby and Jasmine don't discuss their racial and cultural differences. They go to an awkward premarital counseling session at Jasmine's mom's church that leads to a blowout fight when they get home. We never learn if the church is a black church, or whether Crosby feels uncomfortable there.

On its face, this seems like tremendous progress. It's a world where interracial couples face no disappointed parents, no odd questions from neighbors, no total strangers asking why their kids are different colors. But as a black man who has been married to a white woman for nearly 20 years, I have to say that a world where interracial couples almost never discuss race doesn't feel real. What it feels like is avoidance.

That's why I loved a scene from an episode of Mr. Sunshine, the new sitcom featuring Friendsstar Matthew Perry. Alison Janney (from The West Wing) plays his clueless boss, who has an odd proposition for an interracial couple working in her office: a double date with her new boyfriend. She drops his name, Darius Washington.

"Does that ring a bell?" she asks with a knowing look at Alonzo, played by African-American actor James Lesure. She follows up, "I just assumed all you brothers know each other." He laughs awkwardly.

What really sold this scene for me was what the couple said after the boss walked away. They make a couple of jokes about it, but they also seriously discuss whether their boss is being offensive or if she might genuinely be trying to reach out.

I've had that talk too many times — the can-you-believe-it debriefing after someone has said something clueless or condescending.

That's what I see missing with too many of these couples on television. Race difference is an elephant in the room, instead of a window into a new experience. It's time for network TV to fully tap the real dramatic potential of these couples, and let them talk about the issues we're already tackling in the real world.

Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.