Generations: 30 Years Remembered

NBC

NBC

When you think about some of the first television shows with a largely African American cast, cultural staples like The Cosby Show or A Different World are sure to come to mind, but when Generations premiered on NBC in 1989, it was the first of its kind. 

The first American soap opera that featured an African American family at its origin, Generations was groundbreaking in paving the way for future Black soap stars and the visibility of people of color today. 

Tackling love, family dynamics, and social standing, the series intertwined the world of two Chicago families: the Marshalls, a black family  and the Whitmores, a white family. The underlying themes between the families was not only a comment on race, but the concept of new money and old – the Marshalls who embodied a nouveau riche, up and coming family, while the Whitmores were faced with their grandeur fading. The premise was based on three generations between two families, since the matriarch of the Marshall family, Vivian Potter (Lynn Hamilton), worked as a housemaid for the head of the Whitmores, Rebecca (Patricia Crowley/Dorothy Lyman). 

Though the show ended in 1991, it already cemented itself in introducing some of the most iconic actors in Black culture. Before he was Neil Winters on The Young and the Restless, Kristoff St. John, got his start playing Adam Marshall, the handsome, mischievous, college student who was carefree and a bit of a playboy. The character of Adam didn’t only provide some of the more light hearted moments of the show, but he was representative of a new kind of young black man in the soap genre. Someone of affluent standing, confident, and taught lessons that did not come from the proverbial, “hood.”

Audiences were also introduced to faces like Debbi Morgan who played Adam’s sister, Chantal Marshall, and Sam Whitmore, who was often Adam’s cohort, played by Kelly Rutherford.

Adam also had his fair share of love interests, including a young Vivica A. Fox who played Maya Reubens and a brief fling with Doreen Jackson played by Jonelle Allen. The tense relationship between the two characters eventually spiraled into one of the most legendary catfight scenes of any soap opera. Picture this: Two women trussed up in elegant gowns, slinging insults at each other that escalate into an all out clash, complete with flipped chairs, broken vases, and unruly hair. The scene is not only a nod to the two actresses who absolutely sell their hatred for each other, but again, this is another example of black characters who are acting out because of underlying family issues not a cliché street brawl. The lives of the characters, more specifically the Black ones have depth and complexity, and the show didn’t shy away from that. 

If Generations proved anything, it’s that the writers weren’t afraid to go there. Black issues took center stage in a way they had not before, because now it was on daytime television. Back in 1990, when the show was in its second season, Taurean Blacque who played Henry Marshall said, “I saw what it [Generations] could do for me as a black person and what I could portray to the community.” 

Here were black characters that got to enjoy the spotlight and have nuance, not just passing story lines. Before this show, black characters in soaps existed in somewhat of an aside, or an accessory to the other leads. Head of the second generation of Marshalls, Ruth (Joan Pringle), a driven woman eager for power and recognition, are qualities the actress realized were a dime a dozen for black characters at the time.

“As a minority actor, if you’re offered a good part and turn it down, I think you’re foolish,” said Pringle. “Ruth Marshall is a wonderful role.”

Important themes like sickle cell anemia were highlighted; an illness more notably linked to African Americans, was depicted when Doreen was afraid Adam might pass it on to her unborn child. Discussing racial bias and hate crimes were put at the forefront after Ruth and her family moved into the prestigious Whitmore mansion facing vitriol from their neighbors. The concept of that idea was also inherently progressive; a black daughter owning the estate her mother was a servant in, to a white family. Conversations like these that were undoubtedly uncomfortable to address in the light of day, were made a priority. 

During its run, creator and executive producer, Sally Sussman Morina told the Los Angeles Times, “We came on the air as a landmark show fully integrated, and we’ve kept that commitment…” Television writer, Michele Val Jean was also tapped to write for the show. After an interview with Sussman she was hired on the spot. 

NBC Soaps

Percentage of Black viewers across different NBC Soaps in the 80s

Generations was ambitious, but it wasn’t perfect. With only a reach of around 2 million households a day, some cited that the reason for its low ratings stemmed from failing to fully capture a black audience. In the same article, chairman of black studies, Gerald Horne told the L.A. Times that Generations was a black family that wasn’t exactly relatable. “They either portray the extreme underclass or the very wealthy blacks,” he said. “Most blacks are somewhere in between.” 

At the time, NBC had realized how dismal their ratings were when it came to Black viewers. In fact, before Generations its soap programming came last in garnering black people. Even though the show itself had difficulty competing with some of the bigger soaps like The Young and the Restless, or Days of Our Lives, 21% of the audience watching Generations was black. Compare that to the others, only 11% of Days of Our Lives viewers were black and 12% of Another World viewers were black, so the numbers suggest that there was at least a burgeoning black audience tuning in more so than other daytime shows. Who knows what could have been if the show had more people of color writing, and longevity?

Though Sussman was committed to the show, behind the scenes the writing room was still predominantly white; only two black writers were on the show. She was even quoted in an early People Magazine interview stating that she didn’t want to focus on race, just interactions between the characters. With how important folks in Hollywood -- writers, actors and the like have pointed out, nowadays it is important to have people of color writing for characters of people of color. Though, Sussman’s intentions for the show were more geared toward an ‘I don’t see color’ approach, viewers were still affected by seeing people who looked like them on screen. 

Blaque even said it himself: “You need a black person to really get to the essence of our experience as black people.” 

Brief but impactful, the spirit of Generations lives on in programming beyond daytime television like OWN hits, Ambitions and Queen Sugar: Strong examples of family, tradition and of course loads of drama. And the impact isn’t lost on all who were involved. “I’m seeing more minorities on daytime television,” said Kristoff St. John in remembering his time on the show. “If it hadn’t been for Generations, I wouldn’t be on Y&R.”