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Television’s New Theme: L.A. Riots : Programming: Many sitcoms and dramas are using the spring unrest as a backdrop. Executives deny that they are trivializing or exploiting the riots for ratings.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ladies and gentlemen, coming to your living room this fall . . . the Los Angeles Riots!

Television viewers will soon be treated to a heaping dose of turmoil on the tube, courtesy of several veteran drama and comedy shows that will be using the unrest in Los Angeles as a backdrop for their fictional characters.

In addition to NBC’s “A Different World,” which has completed a two-part episode re-creating the riots, plotlines dealing with the unrest and the aftermath will be featured in early season episodes of ABC’s “Doogie Howser, M.D,” NBC’s “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “L.A. Law,” and CBS’ “Knots Landing.”

* Doogie Howser will be confronted with his own social unawareness when the emergency room at the hospital where he works is suddenly filled with riot victims in the Sept. 23 season-opener.

* The family in “Fresh Prince” returns to its South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood to help clean up, and find they must confront their physical and philosophical distance from their roots in the Sept. 21 episode.

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* In November, Gregory Sumner, the ruthless corporate magnate played by William Devane in “Knots Landing,” will head up the corporate division of the fictional L.A. Task Force, an organization modeled after Rebuild L.A., the group created by Mayor Tom Bradley to guide the city’s revitalization in the wake of the riots.

* Also on “Knots Landing,” Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford) will oversee construction of a community sports center proposed by some former baseball players for one of the riot-damaged neighborhoods.

The ramifications of the riots will resonate throughout the lives of the characters of “L.A. Law,” although show executives declined to give details. “We like to surprise our audience,” said co-executive producer John Tinker.

Program executives all denied that they were trivializing or exploiting the riots for ratings.

Because all of the shows except “A Different World” are set in Los Angeles, the producers said they believed it was inevitable that their characters would have to respond to the riots’ effects and question their own social commitment.

“Because our show is about an affluent black family, they should not act like the riots didn’t happen,” said Winifred Hervey-Stallworth, co-executive producer of “Fresh Prince.”

“But we didn’t want to trivialize or editorialize,” she added. “We tried to take a positive look at the aftermath, and inject some humor into the situation.”

Barbara Corday, co-executive producer of “Knots Landing,” warned that prime-time entertainment shows should be sensitive when incorporating the unrest into their plotlines.

“You just can’t use people’s lives and tragedies as fodder unless you have a point to make,” she said. “There’s a certain responsibility when we speak to millions of people each week to be about something.”

The point of the “Knots Landing” storylines, which will start a few weeks after the Oct. 29 season-opener, will be that the private sector has to become involved in the rebuilding effort, Corday said. “We’re saying to our audience all around the country: ‘Get involved.’ ”

While making their points, the story lines will still mix messages with entertainment--a requirement that has resulted in some uneasiness among television insiders.

Vic Rauseo, co-executive producer of “Doogie Howser,” said that there was skepticism by executives and writers at Steven Bochco Productions, which makes the series, and by an ABC executive on whether the comedy should tackle the riots.

“They felt it was too big an issue for a comedy show to take on,” Rauseo said. “They said it would turn people off because they turned to our show so that they can laugh. But once they read the script, they saw the potential.”

Rauseo said that the comic elements worked well in the show: “We have some very dramatic things and some very comedic things. Both things happened that day. Any situation like that has to have a level of humor.”

The episode, written by co-producer Nick Harding, is done mostly in flashback. The teen-age doctor (Neil Patrick Harris) is caught off guard by the effects of the riots that erupted following the announcement of the not-guilty verdicts for the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney G. King.

An injured fireman tells Doogie, “I took a fall after I got hit in the head with a brick. I’m trying to put out a fire and they’re throwing crap at me. That make any sense to you?”

An angry white patient who is forced to wait when the flood of riot victims hits the emergency room: “Look, I hurt myself working, not looting and rioting and acting like an animal.”

A key exchange occurs when Doogie criticizes black orderly Raymond Alexander (Markus Redmond) for berating a young injured black looter:

Doogie: It’s not your job to lecture the patients.

Raymond: I can’t turn off what I feel.

Doogie: You’re going to have to, or you can’t focus on your job.

Raymond (angrily): Well, it’s a hell of a lot easier to focus on your job when you don’t have to run to a pay phone to see if it’s your house that’s burned down.

Rauseo said that the program centers around Doogie’s eventual realization that he cannot stay emotionally detached from what has happened. “When he gets involved in the hospital, he knows he has to get involved with mankind in a much bigger way,” he said.

In the riot-related episode of “Fresh Prince,” all the characters--particularly wealthy attorney Phillip Banks (James Avery) and his professor-wife, Vivian (Janet Hubert-Whitten)--realize that they must become more involved after they return to their old neighborhood that has been ravaged by the riots to join in the clean-up effort.

“They come upon the place they lived before they started to do very well and moved away,” said Hervey-Stallworth. “Phillip and Vivian realize that they have not only moved away economically and physically, but also philosophically and morally.”

The episode will also show a flashback in which the show’s central character, Will (Will Smith), says that he will never turn his back on his community. “We show that he has not lived up to that responsibility,” Hervey-Stallworth said. “Like other young people, he’s grown more apathetic as he’s grown older.

“They all find they need to feel a responsibility for other people. Maybe someone watching will have the same sort of realization.”


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