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The writers overhauled scripts for two family sitcoms made for BYUtv, which is funded by Brigham Young University
The Parker Andersons cast poses for a behind the scenes photo.
A blended family comedy series about a Black man marrying a white woman produced by a conservative, Mormon television studio sounds like a recipe for drama. And there was plenty of that behind the scenes on The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker, two interconnected sitcoms about a chocolate-and-vanilla Brady Bunch.
The show is produced by Canada’s Marblemedia and Utah’s BYUtv. The latter is the television arm of Brigham Young University, a college sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Here’s a quick history lesson: Brigham Young was a Mormon leader who deemed Black skin a curse and Black-white intermarriage so sinful that the only way to cleanse the offence was with a beheading.
Mormon institutions do not tend to be synonymous with progress or diversity. But then again racism is part and parcel with America. Does it matter whether a series is made for BYUtv or Fox?
“I personally believe they were very naive to do this show without people of colour in their company,” says Anthony Q. Farrell, the showrunner responsible for rescuing The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker from some of your worst expectations.
The Parker Andersons, which premieres April 19 on Super Channel, is a Step By Step-style show starring Arnold Pinnock and Kate Hewlett as the interracial couple uniting their children under one roof. Amelia Parker, which stars Millie Davis, is a separate but complementary sitcom about the young Black daughter’s experience as a teenager with selective mutism.
Farrell, a former writer on The Office, was brought in to overhaul and lead both shows last fall, after it became apparent that the original, mostly white creative team led by Frank van Keeken wasn’t game for handling a show about Black lives. According to Farrell, the earlier scripts were very clearly told from a white perspective.
“You are taking a Black man and a white woman, the two most polarizing figures in American history, you’re throwing them in a house in Chicago with kids that don’t belong to each other, and you’re going, ‘Look at how happy we can be.'”
Farrell is on a Zoom call with NOW along with writers Murry Peeters, Ian Steaman and Amanda Joy and director Alicia K. Harris. They explain how far The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker had come from earlier scripts, which they say were out-of-touch takes on an interracial family that Black directors didn’t want to touch. They describe the emergency resuscitation efforts of Farrell’s all-BIPOC team, who shredded scripts and started anew at the eleventh hour to produce family sitcoms attuned to the racial specificity of the characters.
They also grapple with what it means to be working with BYUtv, the television-arm to an institution that raises eyebrows – and not just for its overtly racist past. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can excommunicate LGBT members and Brigham Young University bans same-sex relationships on campus. Squaring these attitudes while writing progressive attitudes into The Parker Andersons posed a challenge for the new creative team.
“I’m using this platform to open the doors for as many people as possible,” says Farrell.
The showrunner, whose own daughter has come out as queer, explains that BYUtv didn’t engage in any practices to prevent him from hiring gay talent to work on The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker. He seized on the opportunity to uplift talent, and hopefully make change within. These shows gave Black women filmmakers like Harris and Kelly Fyffe-Marshall their first opportunities to direct episodic television. But those milestones come with the bitter pill of knowing the shows are part of an organization that has been criticized for reinforcing homophobia.
“It is something that I think about,” says Farrell. “It definitely weighs on me. But then you get to a place where you can either take this job and let a bunch of people into the system, or you can not take it and give those jobs to other people who are not as deserving.”
NOW reached out to previous showrunner Frank van Keeken and Brigham Young University for comment on this story. They have not responded at press time.
When asked by NOW whether BYUtv stands on same-sex marriage and whether their shows would feature LGBTQ+ characters, the network provided the following statement.
“As a young network committed to bringing together religious and non-religious audiences, BYUtv is learning and exploring ways to partner with diverse content creators, writers and talent to implement meaningful co-viewing experiences for our target audience (children 8-15 and their parents). While BYUtv has not referenced LGBTQ+ topics and characters in the five original scripted series it has aired to date, we desire to address subjects – ncluding LGBTQ+ – that are important to our growing and diverse audience.”
A scene from The Parker Andersons.
The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker drama began when Black directors like Sharon Lewis refused to sign on, and directly raised issues with the original scripts to producers – specifically about how BIPOC characters were represented.
“l had in my notes a lot of ‘WTF’ and ‘never’ and ‘who did this?’” says Farrell, who producers called after receiving critical response to the scripts. “There was no one that was protecting the Black characters in the show.”
Farrell was already creating a sitcom for Marblemedia and BYUtv called Overlord And The Underwoods, about a Darth Vader-like intergalactic villain who seeks witness protection on Earth. (It will air on CBC.) The broadcasters asked if Farrell could work with van Keeken to improve The Parker Andersons, which had been through various stages of development.
At that point, the writers’ rooms were predominantly white. BIPOC writers were sprinkled in, but did not feel empowered to make significant changes. Peeters joined the Parker Andersons writers’ room after Marblemedia and BYUtv bought the project. As the only woman and only person of colour in the room at the time, she could only do so much surrounded by white men.
“Even within the realm of Black women around my age, there’s a huge gamut of experiences, and one person can’t ever carry all of that,” says Peeters. “Also, as the junior person on the staff, it was not up to me at the end of the day. There comes a point you’re just following marching orders.”
“There wasn’t any cultural grounding to what you were reading,” adds writer Ian Steaman, descrivbing his reaction to the earlier scripts. “These characters could have been anybody. They didn’t have to be a Black family. It just didn’t seem like people had taken the care to think about the premises they were writing, what that would mean for the experiences and the stories that you’d want to tell around that premise.”
Farrell describes several moments that made him squirm. One early Amelia Parker script had the titular young Black girl donning her white stepmother’s makeup – essentially a whiteface gag. Out of embarrassment, Amelia pulls a fire alarm to escape the scene. “I don’t know what little Black girl is pulling fire alarms trying to get the police after them,” says Farrell.
Farrell brings up other representation issues. There was a Pakistani best friend peddling the usual tropes. And the one East Asian character mentioned in 20 scripts was a nail salon employee with two angry lines.
“Why are BIPOC stories being told by people who don’t have that life experience,” asks writer Amanda Joy. “Why are they the ones given ownership of BIPOC stories and permission to tell them? And why are their voices the ones that are being highlighted in stories that are from other communities?”
“There’s too much of this going on,” adds Farrell. “You’re hiring people that don’t have the right to tell those stories when you could have just hired the right person in the beginning and then you wouldn’t be in this problem.”
Farrell made it clear to The Parker Andersons producers at Marblemedia and BYUtv that fixing the problem in August 2020 for a show that was slated to go to camera in October 2020 required page-one rewrites of all scripts. That overhaul was an expensive proposition. And if it wasn’t for the police killing of George Floyd, perhaps nobody would have even thought there was a problem that needed fixing.
“It was after everything changed for people who didn’t realize that shit was actually happening,” says Farrell. He personally believes the previous iteration of the show would have gone to camera were it not for last summer’s racial reckoning.
“There are no people of colour who are in positions of power in the production company or the broadcaster. The fact that those scripts got to where they were without anyone thinking that they were ridiculous is a testament to that.
“At the same time,” Farrell continues, “they did the very difficult thing of pivoting. It costs a lot of money to do what they did. They decided to save the show rather than try to save themselves. The fact that they were willing to do it is the reason I was willing to do it.”
Showrunner Anthony W. Farrell on the set of Parker Andersons
Farrell took over showrunner duties and put together a team to write 20 scripts in five weeks, keeping a couple lines of dialogue and half of the original basic storylines. Peeters stayed on in the writer’s room. She was joined by an all-BIPOC team including Steaman and Joy, so they could remove the privileged white voice from the scripts.
“It was a complete 180,” says Peeters, who went from overseeing half a script in the previous writers’ room to four scripts on the new team. “I went from being literally the only Black person and the only woman in the writers’ room to now being one of four women and two men.”
Steaman, Peeters and Joy describe the writers’ room experience as the rare and nurturing environment where everyone just gets it. There’s no need to explain lived experiences and nuances. The educational labour that pretty much every BIPOC individual in an office environment does is a bridge these writers “didn’t have to cross,” says Joy.
Why would a show about a blended family, where half the cast is white, require an all-BIPOC writers’ room?
“That came up,” says Farrell, adding he considered hiring white writers. “But then I was [thinking] every single executive on the show is white. I feel like we have that point of view covered.”
He adds that all the BIPOC writers know the white voice well from years of consuming film and television. Peeters adds that they know that perspective well just by living in a white world.
“None of the white actors were like, ‘I don’t feel like this is authentic,’” says Farrell.
Director Alicia Harris and Millie Davis on the set of Amelia Parker
Throughout our conversation, Harris has been listening attentively. The young director didn’t know about the script overhaul before directing her episode of Amelia Parker. As far as she was concerned, she arrived on set to a well-oiled machine.
“You would never be able to tell that you all just started working together,” says Harris, speaking to her colleagues on the Zoom call.
Harris directed the short film Pick and a music video for Jamaican hitmakers Koffee and Buju Banton. She and Fyffe-Marshall, the director behind the short Black Bodies, both got their first shot at directing episodic television on Amelia Parker.
“I felt very supported throughout the whole process,” says Harris, who describes a stark contrast between Amelia Parker’s BIPOC writing team and crew and her previous experiences in television.
“I’ve been on a lot of [sets] – Murdoch Mysteries – where the show has been around for 12 seasons, and they just have the same people who have been doing the job for 12 years. There was literally no people of colour. It was super isolating shadowing on that show.”
Peeters adds that Harris and Fyffe-Marshall wouldn’t have had these opportunities on Amelia Parker if Farrell and producers at Marblemedia didn’t push for it. Certain executives wanted the directors of colour, particularly the women, to just shadow.
Harris is familiar with that stance, which she’s heard from every other showrunner. She knows she’s going to have to prove herself over and over again to get other directing opportunities. Despite cutting her teeth on Amelia Parker, a half-hour sitcom, Harris figures showrunners will use her inexperience in one-hour dramas as the reason she won’t be the right fit.
“They’ll come up with those reasons,” says Harris, describing an industry that clutches at straws for justification to keep BIPOC and women directors out.
Millie Davis in a scene from Amelia Parker
One of the trickiest episodes for The Parker Andersons, written by Steaman and directed by Farrell, deals specifically with racial profiling and microaggressions. In it, the Black father played by Arnold Pinnock has to give his white stepson (Charlie Zeltzer) “the talk” after a profiling incident. Meanwhile, the white Anderson daughter (Devin Cecchetto) gets her own education in microaggressions.
There was a lot of back-and-forth with network executives, who questioned the episode during every script draft and shooting and found it too polarizing for BYUtv audiences. They were ultimately won over. According to Steaman, that’s more progress than the team expected.
“They’re a conservative-leaning, family-oriented TV network,” says Steaman. “They were honest and pretty frank about that. And given that’s their point of view and where they’re coming from, I think a lot of the things we ended up getting to talk about within the show were way beyond what they stated was their comfort zone.”
The team managed to move the needle in terms of Black representation on a television network funded by an institution with a racist history. And they also managed to hire queer talent on the cast and crew. But they couldn’t feature characters on BYUtv who are clearly identified as queer.
Farrell explained his reasons for working with BYUtv, despite having family members who identify as LGBT. The executives are friendly and encouraging, and assured a separation between the network and the college. He saw the opportunity to uplift talent. And there’s something to be said about sneaking some learning into a children’s television show aimed at kids whose parents may not allow them to watch Sesame Street.
But Farrell also admits that his discomfort isn’t completely squared away. On the Zoom call, he encourages his writers to speak their truth on the situation.
“If our aim is to use our talents to make people laugh but also to effect change, it’s hard to do that when you close the conversation,” says Joy, who sees value in working with people whose opinions and policies you don’t agree with.
“I could shut down and stop that conversation,” she adds. “Or we could go ahead and we could say, let’s make this a conversation and show you what the world looks like to us.”
“We were able to open up a space for discourse and a space for them to kind of think about what they could potentially put on their airwaves,” adds Steaman.
Fyffe-Marshall echoes what the writers say on a separate phone call with NOW.
“My motto – that I keep pushing and preaching to people – is to make ripples where you are,” says Fyffe-Marshall.
She explains that she didn’t know about BYU’s ban on same-sex relationships until our conversation and wants people to know that’s not what she’s about. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change her stance. She still got her first directing opportunity on Amelia Parker. She gained capital – money and experience – which in turn will help her continue working and spreading her messaging.
“It’s about making change within your circles.”
The Parker Andersons premieres April 19 at 8 pm on Super Channel, with Amelia Parker premiering immediately after at 8:30 pm. Watch the entire conversation The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker team in the video below.
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.
Update (April 7, 2021): This story was updated to include a statement from BYUtv.