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‘House of Lies’ interracial love still making networks nervous?

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Showtime’s “House of Lies” is quite an intriguing show. Starring Oscar-nominee Don Cheadle as unscrupulous-and-high-powered management consultant Marty Kaan, the show centers on Kaan’s exploits juggling multi-million dollar clients, a less-than-stable home life, and his small crew of colorful co-workers. Among those colleagues is Jeanie van der Hooven, played by Kristen Bell. Just as calculating as Marty, Jeanie is ambitious and cold, with a sharp wit and even sharper perspective.

Throughout the series, the relationship between Marty and Jeanie has become more and more of a focus. What began as flirty banter between coworkers soon evolved into unrequited affection in season 2, and then romantically strained rivalry currently in season 3 after Jeannie awkwardly admitted she was in love with her boss, Kaan. Things have been further complicated by the introduction of Lukas Frye, a charismatic-but-unpredictable clothing line maverick (hilariously played by rapper/actor T.I.) who has been making moves on Jeanie.

The show has been unafraid of tackling taboo themes as it pertains to sex–and it does so in clear-eyed and unflinching fashion. Marty’s cross-dressing young son, Roscoe, has been the most sincere and pure-hearted character of the show’s first two seasons. Jeanie has shown no qualms about using her attractiveness as a weapon and slept with a major player at their old firm to insure a promotion that never happened. Marty’s sexual exploits have featured a plethora of R-rated scenarios involving everything from lesbians to ecstasy to orgies. And, obviously, interracial sex and relationships have been on full display.

It has been posited that Hollywood is unwilling to feature interracial relationships in its more prominent films–too afraid to turn off Middle America with scenes of pretty white starlets making out with black guys. In so many mainstream motion pictures, if there is a black male lead and a white female lead, any romance is only hinted at (see Eddie Murphy and Lisa Eilbacher in Beverly Hills Cop, Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief, Marlon Wayans and Sandra Bullock in The Heat or Will Smith and Bridget Moynahan in I, Robot or Will Smith and Charlize Theron in Hancock or Will Smith and Linda Florentino in Men In Black–well, you get the idea.) The exceptions to this tend to lean towards movies that are explicitly about interracial relationships, like Jungle Fever or Save the Last Dance; but you’re not likely to see Jennifer Aniston paired up with Terrence Howard in a mainstream romantic comedy.

It is an interesting contrast, however, when one looks at popular American television.

Over the last twenty years, interracial relationships have become much more common on American TV. The popular ABC series Ally McBeal featured star Calista Flockhart in two interracial relationships during the show’s tenure (one with Taye Diggs, the other with Jesse Martin), Eriq La Salle’s character on the NBC medical drama ER was paired with British actress Alex Kingston for a time; HBO’s critically-acclaimed crime drama The Wire featured Lance Riddick and Dierdre Lovejoy in a romantic affair. More recently, the ABC sitcom Happy Endings highlighted an interracial married couple (Damon Wayans, Jr and Eliza Coupe), Dax Shepherd and Joy Bryant play a young couple with a family on NBC’s Parenthood and the ever-popular melodrama Scandal features black actress Kerry Washington in a heated affair with a white president, played by Tony Goldwyn. And going back even earlier, Roxy Roker and Franklin Cover, as the Jefferson’s uptight neighbors, were a fixture on The Jeffersons in the 1970s and 80s.

It’s somewhat strange that American television is less resistant to feature interracial relationships in a relatively “normalized” setting while mainstream films seem to still be squeamish about it–unless presenting it in a quasi-topical context. And before we rush to assume that so much progress has been made on either front–we should make sure to remember that the onus is ultimately on the people, and there are still many who prefer not to see white women paired with black men, in particular. During her stint as La Salle’s love interest on E.R., Alex Kingston commented on the backlash the interracial relationship got from some fans. “[Y]ou see interracial relationships all over the place [outside America]. I kind of naively thought it would be even more liberal in America. And it couldn’t have been further from the truth,” she told The Guardian in 2013. “In fact, I’m trying to think if there’s a television show right now [in 2013] where there’s an African American and Caucasian relationship. They’re few and far between.”

Which brings us back to House of Lies.

The show features Don Cheadle bedding and romancing quite a few beautiful women–many of whom are white, including the aforementioned Bell. With such romantic tension at the center of the show, the witty banter and shifting dynamics between Cheadle’s Marty and Bell’s Jeannie has made for entertaining television. Their chemistry is great, reminiscent of the famous love-hate relationships of yesteryear: Sam and Diane from Cheers, or Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as David and Maddie on Moonlighting.

And yet, that intriguing romantic tension features little in the way the show is being marketed. One look at the imagery of the show’s promotional materials and it’s clear that Marty and Jeanie’s romantic angst is anything but clear. The intimate nature of their relationship is downplayed. While the romantic strain is alluded to in the trailer for season 3, it’s nearly invisible in the show’s overall marketing online. While Showtime subscribers see the trailer, curious fans just surfing the Web for an idea about the show would just assume that the pretty blonde girl from Veronica Mars is simply one of the principals on Marty’s team–not that she is engaging in a tortured “will they or won’t they?” back-and-forth with her black male lead. At the end of season 2, Jeanie professes her love for Marty–but he blows her off. At the start of season 3, Marty has a dream about kissing Jeanie on his desk. The dream sequence is the first affirmation of Marty’s feelings for Jeanie–and the first time stars Bell and Cheadle actually kiss on-camera.

But this is what comes up if you Google “Kristen Bell kissing Don Cheadle:”

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Anything but Kristen Bell kissing Don Cheadle.

So maybe the network isn’t so eager to showcase the fact that the former “Veronica Mars” is making out with her black, male co-stars on it’s hip, clever show. And their reluctance speaks volumes. Because they know that there are still many people in this country who don’t want to see that. And that proves that there is still a lot of change yet to come.


10 Comments

  1. soisaid on February 21, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    who cares, if the show is making money and you have a great cast. they will get over it.

  2. Adrian Khan (The Soca Warrior) on February 23, 2014 at 10:25 am

    It only makes white men uncomfortable unless it involves them.

    • fred handy on June 8, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      So true!

    • jpowers55 on March 11, 2015 at 7:09 pm

      This post should be the only one in the comment section because it hits the nail right on the head. No one is uncomfortable with Scandal.

  3. blackwhiteromance.com on April 4, 2014 at 2:57 am

    freindship or love beyond race and borders.GREAT

  4. Orca the Mighty on September 8, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Wonder what kind of reaction Jennifer Aniston would get if she did a hot sex scene with a black man.

    • Leonardo Miranda Collantes on March 17, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      she ain’t that open-minded

    • Jojo on May 26, 2017 at 11:02 pm

      I read a few years ago where Jennifer considered a movie script that had a really explicit sex scene with a black man.
      The story was she was married to a diplomat who becomes an ambassador to a small African country. She meets an actual African prince and they have an affair. Two sex scenes…..one in bedroom and one outdoors under a waterfall.

  5. fred handy on October 29, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Great show!

  6. JC on February 23, 2016 at 7:43 am

    Most Americans do not have a problem with interracial romances. The entertainment industry, which includes the journalism branch, just projects their racism onto the rest of the country and then pats their works on the back with articles like these to show how “not racist” they are. Lol. House of Lies is still just a mediocre show (at best) to people who can see through the superficial and the unmemorable, presence-free actress in too significant of a role does not help it either.