'Daca dramas': how immigration became US TV's new obsession

The Guardian 9 months ago

Television ripped from the headlines doesn’t usually fare too well. When Homeland delved in there was an embarrassing moment involving Arabic graffiti, while Scandal’s treatment of real-life events were so ham-fisted that other show’s parodies made it look tame. The latest TV trend involves the idea of real life directly informing TV, but takes things up a notch by centering it around one of the most divisive subjects in US politics: immigration.

In the past two weeks, three new projects have found homes at major US channels, and they follow half a dozen more which were given the green light in the past 12 months. Last October, it was confirmed that the memoir of Orange is the New Black actor Diane Guerrero would be made into a series. That was followed by Casa, which will focus on a group of siblings whose parents are deported – a situation that really happened to Guerrero when her parents were sent to Colombia.

The network leading the way is The CW, best known for Gossip Girl and Gilmore Girls. More recently, though, the channel’s crown jewel has become Jane the Virgin, the telenovela remake starring Gina Rodriguez. And it’s Rodriguez who is executive-producing Daca drama Illegal, which follows a student who finds out he is undocumented, for the channel. (Casa will also be The CW, while Rodriguez is bringing Have Mercy – a remake of German immigration drama Dr Illegal – to CBS.)

For Rodriguez, this is a chance for more stories involving Latinos to be seen and heard. “When we talk about inclusivity, there are a lot of communities that aren’t being discussed,” she recently told the LA Times. “And the Latino community, we have waves of Latinos doing projects – but do they get exposure?”

Immigration dramas have proved to be a good way for under-represented communities in the US to have their stories on the small screen. Fresh Off The Boat was adapted from the memoir of “food personality” Eddie Huang, who detailed growing up in America after moving from Taiwan. That show balanced ideas of assimilation with the pressure of new and old cultural norms colliding (Huang’s love of hip-hop perplexes his parents) and pulled off something that was enlightening, but above all funny.

Most of these new shows have a comedic element: Illegal is described as “an edgy Latino version of The Wonder Years”, while another new show Welcome to Maine is set to find the funny as a Syrian refugee enters a rural community. But such sensitive subject matter can easily leave networks in trouble. A comedy called Mail Order Family, which focused on the travails of a young woman from the Philippines, was recently cancelled after an outcry.

Dissecting rather than reinforcing stereotypes seems to be a pre-requisite to making these shows a success. Rafael Agustin, who is working with Rodriguez on Illegal and was undocumented himself, recently spoke about why these shows need to be made. “It’s important to understand the complexities of immigration. When people see a face to these issues, it’s different. It doesn’t become villainizing. We’re not fake, shadow people taking jobs.”

With creators who are immigrants themselves, and who place an understanding of telling real stories – the next wave of immigration could be coming from the TV.

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