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In 2021, Black Boyhood Got More Complex on TV

And while this makes his character refreshing, it also signals a significant turn in television. “The Wonder Years,” on ABC, is part of a group of new shows, including “Swagger” on Apple TV+ and Netflix’s “Colin in Black and White,” that this fall joined existing series, like the CW’s “All American” and OWN’s “David Makes Man,” in centering the vulnerability, curiosity and emotional complexity of Black boys. The result has been that in 2021, we could find more nuanced portrayals of Black boyhood on TV than ever before.

These shows challenge not only the predominance of coming-of-age narratives about white male adolescents but also the longstanding typecasting of Black boys onscreen as impoverished, clownish, hyper-violent or otherwise threatening.

“I just want to be a part of that conversation,” Saladin K. Patterson, the creator of the “Wonder Years” reboot, told me recently. “And just show a different side of a Black boy that is intelligent, that’s sensitive, that doesn’t always get the girl, but has a very high emotional I.Q.”

This shouldn’t feel exceptional, but it does. I watched the original “Wonder Years” as a kid in the late 1980s, but the only Black boys I saw on television at that time were there for comedic relief, like the awkward Steve Urkel from “Family Matters” or the frequently ridiculous Carlton Banks of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” The best I could hope for was a two-dimensional supporting character like Theo Huxtable of “The Cosby Show,” and of course his portrayal was a rejection of earlier shows like “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Webster” that featured orphaned Black boys saved by wealthy white households.

Later, I watched movies, like “Boyz N The Hood,” “Juice” and “Menace II Society,” all of which showed young Black protagonists trapped in the cycle of gun, gang and police violence. With the exception of the more well-rounded comedy “Everybody Hates Chris,” it was still hard in the 2000s to find a show, even well-intentioned ones like “The Wire,” that attended to the concerns of young Black men with seriousness and nuance or without inevitably framing their lives as shaped by poverty and a winnowing of opportunity.

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