While television buzz lately seems to often be filled with the likes of lovelorn vampires, reality shows and the Kardashians, the family drama genre is alive and well even when it's not creating the kind of buzz that sells magazines and bumps up website traffic. Over at ABC Family, "Lincoln Heights," the one-hour drama focusing on the lives of an African-American family living in a Los Angeles working class neighborhood, has actually seen its ratings climb with each season proving wrong any naysayer (i.e., television executive) that says the family drama is dead. Executive producer Kathleen McGhee-Anderson spoke to our Jim Halterman about how there can't be enough family dramas on the air, how she is keeping things real with stories about Iraq and race as well as fan reaction to the interracial romance between two of the teenage characters.
Jim Halterman: Even though you weren't the creator of "Lincoln Heights" you came in early on and successfully steered the ship to make it a hit. How easy or difficult has it been?
Kathleen McGhee Anderson: I've been trying to sell a version of this show for 20 years but I was told that a family drama and particularly a family drama with an African-American family at the center was going to be impossible to sell, that it wouldn't be a success and there was no way it could really sustain beyond any length of time so nobody was ever going to buy this kind of show. When the show was offered to me to come in as a showrunner and executive producer when [creator Seth Freeman] left before production started I jumped at the chance. My first writing assignment as a baby writer was "Little House on the Prairie" and I always wanted to do family drama from the day I started. It's just so appealing to a broad audience.
JH: Family dramas are often labeled too soft but you're proving them wrong by the growth in the "Lincoln Heights" audience.
KMA: I always take a lot of gratification in that. The writers on our show and also the crew and the staff [have] come back for all four seasons and these are good people who have opportunities to do other kinds of shows but they are drawn to this because it has meaning to them that other shows don't. That's very gratifying to me, too - the behind the scenes commitment to do this kind of storytelling. That's why I work so hard to tell the best stories because I want this kind of show to succeed because maybe it will send a message to programmers that we should do more of this and it really dispel the myth that a show like this can't work so at least we've done that. I love that ABC Family has the courage to put it on because so many other networks said it was an impossibility so it's been a pleasure to work with them because they believe in that vision.
JH: What is it about the show that has audiences responding so favorably?
KMA: Because we're telling the story that nobody else is and the audience wants this story. It's a multi-cultural audience and it's also a millennial audience that sees the world through a different lense and this is relevant and it's meaningful and entertaining and they love it. They bring their parents into it and their parents get into it as well. It also speaks to a minority audience as well as a mainstream audience. The minority audience is hungry for representation of themselves, which they don't get on TV much anymore so that's a built-in audience. Basically it's the millennial audience that is color blind in a way that a lot of the old school attitudes don't reflect so I think that's why we get such enthusiastic numbers. Our numbers are young. They want to see these stories and it's not just a black series either. It's a series that talks about a community. Lincoln Heights is a neighborhood that has a very diverse cross-section of residents. In the school, at the clinic and on the police force we're telling stories that transcend race and that's what people are responding to.
JH: You literally shook things up in season three with a massive earthquake. How did you approach shaping the stories in the new season?
KMA: Season four is a season that is based on rebuilding the community, which I think has relevance because of what happened with Katrina and also what's happened with the people's lives economically, which forces you to go back and reconfigure your values and how you can sustain and survive today. At the end of season three there was an earthquake in Lincoln Heights and with that earthquake the community was in shambles so season four was about rebuilding the community and it was about surviving in the community where people really need to get in and try to make those people who live in it and make it work and rebuild it. That's an important story for people today so that's how we approached it. We had FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] representatives set up in our clinic and we told stories about how homeowners could rebuild and how the junior high school was destroyed in the earthquake and what the institutions needed to survive.
We personalized it as well by bringing in a storyline about what was going on with the war at the end of season three the Sutton family welcomes in, some begrudgingly, a new member of the family who happens to be an older son that Eddie (Russell Hornsby) had previous to being married to Jenn (Nicki Micheaux) so now the family has a brother (Nate, played by Chadwick Boseman) who has served time in Iraq and decides to go back. So we deal with issues with how it feels to be a family with a family member in the military who is really seeing action and how they have to pull together to support him and how they become a part of the landscape in terms of supporting the military and also supporting the son when he does come home with some injuries. We really are trying to be relevant as well as entertaining and I think we've struck some emotional chords in some strong stories about what we're going through today.
JH: In the season premiere, there are class issues that arise when the Suttons have a chance to live in a more affluent part of town and some of the family experiences feelings of guilt for leaving the neighborhood. Where did that story come from?
KMA: I'm from Detroit and that's a story that's relevant to me because Detroit was a really thriving city when I grew up in it and everyone knows about its decline and how it's continued to decline because of the major car industry. I have a feeling of guilt regarding leaving and moving to Los Angeles and abandoning that community rather than try to rebuild it which many of my family members have done and have stayed there. In a way, "Lincoln Heights" is trying to tell a story that I think ideally I would like to be living which is trying to do something to give back to the community that needs a shot in the arm so I think it's my way of trying to bring attention that kind of challenge in rebuilding urban America.
JH: The Charles (Robert Adamson) and Cassie (Erica Hubbard) relationship is not only an interracial story but there is now some legal aspects coming in due to what happened with them last year. How will their stories evolve this year?
KMA: At the centerpiece of the show is the two... I call them Romeo and Juliet characters with a little more contemporary slant because it is an interracial couple and everything picks up from that devastation of the earthquake. Our show was birthed as a part family/part procedural drama with the Dad being on the police force. Gradually, it has evolved into a family series primarily and procedural is no longer a way of looking at the world but we find it very interesting to tell edgy stories and the edgy stories do tend to come from the procedural world that Eddie works in. So the intersection of Cassie and Charles with some legal issues gives us a broader landscape for those kids to live in outside of high school. A lot of kids can relate to that because it's more than just going to the prom and working on the yearbook and dealing with teen angst and how it intersects with the bigger picture and the tougher issues, which a lot of kids have to do. We're trying to give Cassie and Charles some tough dilemmas to test them and see if their relationship changes. They are very challenged this season and not just by love.
JH: What kind of feedback have you gotten back from viewers on the interracial elements of the show?
KMA: If there has been negative, it hasn't come to our ears; we haven't heard it. What we have heard from the ABC Family website where the kids come after the episodes air... they start talking in the chat room and what we hear is that kids want to see this story and they say, 'This is our story. This is me.' We love the fact that we're dealing with a black and white couple and we don't see it anyplace else realistically. That seems to be the most interesting angle they have and, of course, one of the resonances for them was [also] the relationship with a stepparent. That's another hot topic that seems to really light up the chat rooms, which has to do with how Charles relates to the stepfather and the problems that he has, how the stepfather's resentment of Cassie interracially has impacted them as well because Charles' stepfather is a white man and has some problems with Charles dating a black girl so the kids find that interesting. I think they're trying to figure their way out of that because many of them are in interracial relationships or many of them have observed them in their families or friends. They look at the series as a way to get information and guidance and, of course, figure out what's going to happen next.
The fourth season of "Lincoln Heights" premieres tonight on ABC Family at 8:00/7:00c.