Undocumented Storylines & Characters in Television

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Undocumented Storylines & Characters in Television

By Michael Conti The debut season of CW’s Jane the Virgin turned quite a few heads, partly because of its inclusion of undocumented American characters and storylines that respectfully explored their condition. It was a move that was celebrated by critics, and was rewarded with regular audiences enough …

By Michael Conti

The debut season of CW’s Jane the Virgin turned quite a few heads, partly because of its inclusion of undocumented American characters and storylines that respectfully explored their condition. It was a move that was celebrated by critics, and was rewarded with regular audiences enough to renew the comedy/drama for a second season.

But many mainstream networks have yet to include undocumented characters or, at the very least, include the concept of legal status in the stories they tell. This is an issue that directly affects 11.7 million undocumented people living here, and millions more who are in “mixed-status” families – in which members of the same family have different immigration statuses.

Many Hollywood writers ignore the plight of a child growing up undocumented or with parents who are of mixed status – failing to recognize a growing part of the American cultural landscape and entertainment audience.

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(Above) In True Detective, Ani Bezzerides, played by Rachel McAdams, confers with Felicia, played by Yara Martinez about how to escape the country.

(Below) Ray Velcoro, played by Colin Farrell, threatens an undocumented mother with a call to ICE in an attempt to extract rent money.

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Most recently, the crime drama True Detective, in its highly anticipated second season, made several attempts at highlighting the role that undocumented immigrant labor plays in local economies – in this instance, the fictional southern California city of Vinci. While TV critics rightly took issue with the convoluted plot of the show, the second season of True Detective should be recognized for utilizing undocumented characters – who, in other shows, would have been background elements – and including them as integral components of the main characters’ personal journeys. It’s a show about crime, and personal redemption, so it should be recognized that not every depiction of undocumented immigrants (like all people) is positive. What made this characterization a success, in my opinion, was the willingness to elevate them past a stereotype. They were capable of strong convictions, and brave actions, like their “documented” co-stars.

Jane the Virgin isn’t just great because of its inclusion of undocumented characters. It’s great because it’s representative of our changing demographics – it’s headlined by characters of color and it comes across to audiences with a spirit of inclusion and a blending of cultures. This isn’t a show directed at only Latino audiences or only white audiences. It includes elements familiar to many: from the smooth, deep voice of the Latino narrator, to the “Scrubs”-style pausing of scenes for humorous written explanations, to the myriad relationship and emotional storylines which are common in both American soap operas and telenovelas.

As networks debut their fall line-ups in the coming weeks, the question remains as to whether undocumented immigrants have reached a stage of visibility worthy of surpassing media stereotypes. A show like FOX’s animated comedy Bordertown, has the potential to do much confrontation, pitting stereotypes of both pro and anti-immigrant sides against each other. But it remains to be seen if all that confrontation will transcend the debate, and truly humanize the 11.7 million people very much remaining in the shadows today. 

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