The Disney Channel Makes History With Its New Sitcom "Just Roll With It"
The new family friendly sitcom “Just Roll with It” is making TV history. That’s because it is the first scripted, multi-camera show to let live studio audiences vote on the zany and improvised stunts the actors have to perform each episode.
But if viewers go beyond the laughs, they might notice that the comedy is groundbreaking in other ways as well. The series features a multicultural brood of four, making this the first time the Disney Channel has featured an interracial family with a black dad and a white mom.
“TV is a little behind the curve in general on all of that,” says Suzi Barrett. She co-stars as Rachel, a military veteran, wife and mom who works as a producer on her husband Byron’s radio show. Actor Tobie Windham (“Walk the Prank”) plays Byron, who is also Owen’s (Ramon Reed) dad and Blair’s (Kaylin Hayman) stepdad. Owen is black and Blair is white.
“People are ready to see what families actually look like and what America actually looks like,” adds Barrett, whose credits include “Kirby Buckets” and “Comedy Bang Bang.” “It’s a real pleasure to be able to show that freely and help TV catch up a little bit. We take for granted in big cities, where it’s like, ‘Oh of course everybody’s in mixed race couples and everybody looks like everything.’
“But we forget that in parts of Middle America, that might not be the case. And they’re ready to see that and share in that experience and the joy that we have.”
Meanwhile the Disney Channel’s sister network, ABC, is rolling out “Mixed-ish” this fall. It is a prequel to “Black-ish” that delves into the backstory of its matriarch Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and her white father, black mother and biracial siblings. Prior to this, Freeform (which is also part of the ABC/Disney roster of networks) trumpeted the family drama “The Fosters,” which featured an interracial lesbian couple and their blended family of biological and adopted children of various races and backgrounds.
“There’s a precedent in TV history for multiracial and multicultural pairings as early as ‘Sesame Street,’” says Maya Washington, a filmmaker and educator. “It’s possible that the improv approach makes it a nice frame for this kind of family to situate themselves in. The innovation is more about the format than race. Does having a multiracial family mean that we don’t acknowledge the historical and political experiences of black men and white women? How will they address or ignore racial differences within the family?
“But there are families who can relate on cultural terms,” Washington adds. “With the experience of being a ‘Brady Bunch’ kind of family. They check a lot of boxes for the diversity of today’s American families.”
After all, connecting with all sorts of families is a major part of Disney’s marketing mission.
"Great storytelling is always our goal, and as we work to tell stories that reflect the world in which kids live, we reflect diversity in families,” says Kory Lunsford, Disney Channel’s vice president of original programming. “To pull off such a unique concept of blending a traditional family sitcom with improv comedy, the family has to be grounded in reality because they are the heart of the show. Viewers will want to follow the hilarious adventures of the Bennett-Blatt family because they see themselves, even in the most outrageous situations.”
It’s the situational occurrences that make “Just Roll with It” universally relatable and appealing, says Windham, a husband and father on the show and in real life.
“We are living in a country that’s divided,” Windham says. “But we’re showing that through personal relationships, we can overcome what life throws at us. It’s important for viewers to see that it doesn’t matter that I’m black and that she’s white, because she has a husband who loves her and her daughter like she’s his own. And she loves her husband and his son like he’s her own.
“I don’t remember seeing families like this on television when I was growing up,” he says. “But it makes me feel good to know that my daughter is growing up in a world where a show like this portrays a blended family of different races living together, and that’s beautiful.”
Kevin Maillard is a law professor and New York Times contributor who has paid close attention to the way the Disney Channel addresses race. The long and short of it, Maillard says, is that the network usually avoids race-related issues, preferring to instead spotlight mixed-race stars, such as Zendaya, Selena Gomez and Roshon Fegan, in generic and apolitical ways.
Although “Just Roll with It” doesn’t talk about race either – for instance, an upcoming episode has Byron’s radio cohost the Gator (Jc Currais), who is white, pretending that Owen is his son without any explanation – the show’s aesthetics resolutely endorse blended interracial families. And that is a step in the right direction, Maillard says.
“Television is an effective medium for reinforcing social norms and normalizing behavior,” says Maillard, who teaches at Syracuse University. “The visual impact of seeing a multiracial family is both radical and every day. It passively assures the viewer of its normality, while actively rejecting default monoracialism.
“For generations, production codes prohibited interracial couples and storylines on film and television, for the very reason that their inclusion on screen normalizes such couplings,” he adds. “To include these families under the gaze of the camera ratifies the pairing as socially and morally acceptable, and, even more, desirable. Television conveys this message as it renders a visual reality to its viewers. This is a positive acceptance of the power of entertainment to invoke social change.”
More than anything, says Reed who costars as Owen, kids today don’t care what race TV dads and moms are. They just want to watch a good show, and “Just Roll with It” is all the better because its cast truly gets along.
“Our show really shows unity – no matter what type of personality or color you are or what ethnicity you are,” Reed, 13, says. “Through all of these improvised moments, there’s always a message. We’re always unified and always have each other’s backs.”
“Just Roll with It” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on the Disney Channel.