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‘Generations’ in Black and White

Times Staff Writer

Although many daytime soaps have brought in black characters from time to time, none has ever featured a black family on an ongoing basis.

That will change today when NBC introduces “Generations"--the story of two Chicago families, one black and one white, whose lives have intertwined through three generations.

“Generations,” the network’s first new daytime serial in five years, is the creation of 32-year-old Sally Sussman, who was hired away from CBS’ “The Young and the Restless” to bring a fresh slant to daytime TV for NBC.

Brian Frons, vice president of daytime programs for NBC, acknowledges that featuring a black family in daytime represents a breakthrough, but he said the network brought Sussman aboard for economic reasons rather than social reform. The idea of featuring both a black and a white family was entirely hers, he said.

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NBC wanted to introduce a new soap to the lineup, he explained, because game shows, the other staple of daytime TV, have been less profitable in recent years. Adding a new soap, he said, also will allow NBC stations to start their afternoon block of soaps a half-hour earlier than before, thus putting them on even competitive footing with the other networks, which feature more soaps.

“Generations” will be seen in Southern California weekdays at 11:30 a.m. on Channels 4, 36 and 39.

The series traces the lives of the black Marshalls and the white Whitmores, who became linked many years earlier when one Vivian Potter worked as a housekeeper and nanny to wealthy Rebecca Whitmore and her daughters. Vivian’s daughter, Ruth, married Henry Marshall, who went on to build a successful chain of ice-cream stores with Rebecca Whitmore’s legal advice. Now a new generation of Marshall and Whitmore children are friends as well as social and economic equals.

The cast includes Taurean Blacque (“Hill Street Blues”), Pat Crowley (“Dynasty”), Joan Pringle (“The White Shadow”), Gail Ramsey (“General Hospital”), Andrew Masset (“Days of Our Lives”) and Lynn Hamilton (“Sanford and Son”).

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Frons said introducing a black family was not done to attract black viewers, since black viewership of soaps is already disproportionately high compared to their makeup of the population.

“I feel the same way about black viewers as I do about white viewers--the more that watch NBC, the happier guy I am,” he said. “That’s not really where we started from. We started from: ‘How many soaps do we have on the air?’ ”

But, Frons continued, “I think we’ve tried to do what’s different. We have a female game show host (Vicki Lawrence on “Win, Lose or Draw”), and a Hispanic lead, A Martinez, on ‘Santa Barbara.’ You try to do things that other people aren’t doing.”

A possible reason for daytime TV’s traditional shortage of black characters, he suggested, is that many of the serials date back to a period when there was little black representation in television, period. Black characters had to be planted among existing story lines and characters, which was difficult. “We’re starting from scratch, which certainly makes it easier for us,” he said.

As for Sussman, she said she created the Whitmores and the Marshalls “because it was a story I wanted to see. They’re just people--they’re interesting characters,” Sussman said. “That’s something that I hope the whole audience will grab onto, white and black.

“On (most soaps), they bring in a black character, then they bring in another black character, and then they put them together. The difference here is that we have a core black family from Day One. We see them at work, at home, in conflict, in love, in hate--we give them the same credibility as any core family.”

Sussman says she and her writing team--Thom Racina, Elizabeth Harrower and Judi Ann Mason--will not focus on interracial romance the way some soaps have done. “Interracial romance has been done to death. My instinct is to do what hasn’t been done before,” she said.

Troy Duster, a sociologist at UC Berkeley, will provide the show’s writers with a historical perspective on changing race relations over the past 40 years and how they might have affected the three generations of the Whitmores and Marshalls.

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“What interested me specifically was that this show provides a kind of vehicle for exploring a different kind of dialogue between the races,” Duster said. “This is a black family that has a lot of social mobility.

“You see series that explore single-class relations--either it’s the (affluent Huxtable family) in ‘The Cosby Show,’ or a working-class family,” Duster continued. “You very rarely see in a single series a wide range of social relationships. That seems to have some dramatic potential, some educational potential.”

“Hill Street Blues” veteran Blacque, who stars as entrepreneur Henry Marshall, said he forsook prime time for “Generations” because Marshall was such a believable parent (and Blacque should know; now divorced, he has several adult children and six younger adopted kids).

“When I read it (the script), it was amazing,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I must see the woman who wrote this and shake her hand--she mus t have adult or teen-age children to be able to write about this.

“And then (Sussman) came out, this petite, pretty little white woman, young and single--and that shows you that problems are not black or white, they’re universal,” Blacque continued. “I told her: ‘You must have been outside my window with a telescope, looking in.’

“This is family, about how the family unit stays together, and the love that’s involved. It’s such a bittersweet thing. It could have been an Asian family, or a Hispanic family. It could open up doors for other networks to take chances; (minorities) are people, too. They look at television too--and they buy products, too.”


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