TELEVISION : Where More Isn’t Much Better : African-Americans are increasingly welcome in prime time, but some observers say the new shows fail to rise above stereotypes
Bobby Soul was more than just another hyperkinetic, jive-talkin’ disc jockey to Veronica Washington. He was the great “black” hope who could save her struggling African-American radio station.
Washington, the fictional owner of the fictional WBLZ in Detroit that is the setting for the new NBC situation comedy “Rhythm & Blues,” believed Soul, who had a huge following of black listeners at another station, was the key to boosting WBLZ’s floundering ratings. After hearing his tape, she hired him sight unseen.
In the first episode of the series, Washington (Anna Maria Horsford) told her beleaguered staff before Soul arrived: “I got a feeling that the brother who walks through that door is gonna lead us to the promised land!” But Soul (Roger Kabler) turned out not to be a “brother” but rather a white man who had affected a hip urban tone in his act--prompting a reaction of shock and disappointment from his boss.
That same disappointment is also being expressed by media watchdog groups, scholars and others who had once high hopes for a fall television season that was bringing forth an unprecedented number of prime-time series featuring all or predominantly African-American casts. Frustrated by what they called the tradition of stereotypes and buffoonish images that had historically dominated shows with African-Americans, they felt the new entries might mark a new era of honesty and depth in the depiction of contemporary black culture and values.
But judging by some of the early episodes, they already are seeing red over the depiction of blacks this season.
Jannette L. Dates, co-editor of the book “Split Images: African-Americans in the Mass Media,” said: “It’s just the same old characters we’ve seen over and over again, ad nauseam. Lots of young people may think it’s funny, but these images are with us forever, not only here, but all over the world. People come here from other countries and expect black people to act like they do on TV.”
“I wish I could be a little more optimistic, but it just seems like the same old soup warmed over,” said Elaine Pounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Black Media Coalition, an organization of industry professionals and others interested in the depiction of African-Americans on TV.
While acknowledging that some of the characters on their shows may appear clownish and one-dimensional at first glance, some producers and creators protest that they are being judged by a higher standard than Anglo shows and argue that their critics need to be patient and allow the programs and characters to evolve.
Rob Edwards, creator and co-executive producer of “Out All Night,” said criticism of one character, who was accused of being clownish and woman-crazy in the pilot episode, was premature: “Judging him that way would be like judging the first five minutes of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and making up your mind that it was a black-and-white movie set in Kansas.”
In addition to “Rhythm & Blues,” the new black-oriented shows are:
- “Here and Now” on NBC, starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner of “The Cosby Show” as a psychology graduate student who helps run an inner-city Manhattan youth center. The series airs Saturdays at 8 p.m.
- “Out All Night,” also on NBC, starring Patti LaBelle as a singer and businesswoman who owns a trendy black club where top names such as Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston perform. A college graduate (Morris Chestnut, from “Boyz N the Hood”) helps her manage the club while she tries to manage his life. The series follows “Here and Now” on Saturdays at 8:30.
- “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” on ABC, starring comedian Mark Curry as a substitute teacher who lives with two female roommates, played by Dawnn Lewis and Holly Robinson. The show has been called a black “Three’s Company” with dashes of “Head of the Class” and “Welcome Back, Kotter” thrown in for good measure. It airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.
- “Martin” on Fox, starring comedian Martin Lawrence as the host of a Detroit radio talk show on relationships who is more in control on the air than he is with his girlfriend (Tisha Campbell). It airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. against “Rhythm & Blues” in what is unofficially being called the battle of the TV shows about black radio.
Veteran shows featuring mostly African-Americans include NBC’s “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “A Different World” and “I’ll Fly Away,” Fox’s “In Living Color” and “Roc,” and ABC’s “Family Matters.”
With the five newcomers, 12 shows out of the 74 prime-time, scripted entertainment series on the four networks now feature large black casts. Black performers are also key members of several new drama series, including “Going to Extremes,” “Angel Street” and “The Round Table.” More programs with other African-Americans are in development, with some already pegged as mid-season replacements.
Inspired by the success of “The Cosby Show,” “In Living Color,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “A Different World,” the networks are employing more African-Americans for the dual task of appealing to a mainstream audience and tapping into a vast black viewership. A Nielsen ratings study last year revealed that black households watch significantly more television than overall households--an average of 69 hours of television per week, compared to 47 hours for viewers overall.
In addition to the incentives of attracting blacks, network executives maintain that the blossoming of the talent pool of African-American performers and writers has been instrumental in the explosion of black-oriented shows. All five new shows have blacks on the writing and producing staff.
“The good news is that the talent pool in the black creative community has increased,” said Ted Harbert, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment. “There are a lot more actors and writers. The key is there are a lot more black writers who are solid pros.”
But judging from the early episodes of the new shows, media watchers said that many of the programs have already fallen into the historic trap of perpetuating stereotypes and negative images that became dominant on other shows featuring African-Americans dating back to the 1960s. They charged that many of the characters have slipped into “minstrelsy.”
They and other TV critics have knocked NBC’s “Rhythm & Blues” as having a racist premise. Fox’s “Martin” has been accused of perpetuating racial and sexual stereotypes. The new crop of shows, they claim, present male characters who are lazy and unable to assert authority (“Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper”), lecherous (“Out All Night” and “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper”) and unlawful (“Here and Now”). The females have not fared much better, being seen as either domineering “mammy” types (“Out All Night”) or as sex objects (“Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” “Martin,” “Out All Night”).
Media historian Dates, a Howard University professor in the School of Communications who is currently a fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, said that she had been hopeful that the entertainment industry as a whole would be more sensitive to in-depth explorations of African-American culture following the civil unrest in Los Angeles last spring.
“Everyone seemed so shocked, saying, ‘We’ve got to do something so that black people won’t have such feelings of isolation and alienation,’ ” Dates said. “But maybe we’re not as focused on that now that a lot of time has passed. Meanwhile, Hollywood is grinding away, singing the same tune. There are more shows, but not the quality that is desirable if we’re going to start the healing process.”
Scholars and historians pointed out that all the new shows are situation comedies, and lamented the lack of dramas featuring black families or taking place in black workplaces. However, they did have praise for some of the dramas featuring prominent black characters, such as CBS’ “Angel Street,” ABC’s “Going to Extremes” and NBC’s “I’ll Fly Away.”
Dates said that “Angel Street” and “Going to Extremes” in particular had “strong black characters. In ‘Angel Street,’ Robin Givens’ character (a Chicago homicide detective) really expresses passion and concern about her community.”
Pounds said that too many of the premises of the new situation comedies revolve around young people who are more interested in rap music than in taking a serious attitude toward life.
“This hip-hop mentality is kind of scary because it has such an impact on our young people,” Pounds said. “I would like to see them presented with role models that are more positive, mature and serious-minded. But it seems that the decision-makers in Hollywood are only comfortable with African-Americans if they’re comics. It’s just a new version of the ‘shufflin’ along’ of the 1940s.”
Producers and creators of the shows take offense at the criticism but acknowledge that they are already fine-tuning youthful African-American characters who may have appeared to be too silly in early episodes. They said they are determined to put forth positive images and overcome the stigma of shows such as “Good Times,” “That’s My Mama” and “The Jeffersons” that they feel put African-Americans in a negative light.
“I have always watched a lot of TV, and I’ve been starved for positive portrayals of black people,” said “Out All Night’s” Edwards, who is black. “Those people in all those earlier shows were basically fools. Nobody had concrete goals, and it was real bleak. You got the idea that there wasn’t a single black person who owned anything.”
He blamed the networks for the lack of depth: “The networks don’t take blacks seriously. We’re a great force for selling shoes and burgers, but we can’t seem to break the barrier of getting a show or drama on past 9 p.m. It’s not for lack of supply or talent. Shows like a black ‘thirtysomething’ get pitched all the time.”
Some of the sharpest critical barbs thus far have been thrown at “Rhythm & Blues.”
The joke behind “Rhythm & Blues” revolves around reverse discrimination. In the pilot episode, when Bobby Soul first walked into the station, he smiled widely and bellowed, “WHAT UP, DETROIT!” as the all-black staff stared in horror and disbelief.
Washington, the station owner, declared, “I can’t believe it. I hired a white man!” Another staff member said of Soul, “Why isn’t he out golfing or skiing or shopping at the Gap?” Washington spent most of the episode trying to find a loophole in Soul’s contract so that she could fire him before he even went on the air.
Meanwhile, Soul tried to overcome the hostility by doing impressions of Sylvester Stallone, Richard Dreyfuss and Christopher Lloyd. Finally, he commandeered the studio, screamed “HEY!” into the microphone while telling listeners that he was “throwin’ it down and pickin’ it right back up.” He danced around the studio to a James Brown record, never telling his audience that he is white.
The black staff watched Soul’s antics admiringly. “Yes, he is fly,” said the sales manager (Ron Glass). The phone started ringing off the hook with happy listeners voicing their approval. Washington reluctantly agreed to let Soul stay on.
At a news conference a few months ago with Kabler and the show’s executive producer, Jordan Moffet, a few TV critics expressed uneasiness with Soul’s character and Kabler’s portrayal, and the fact that the premise appears to be about a white man saving a black radio station.
“Bobby Soul makes the ‘Fresh Prince’ look like George Bush,” one television writer said to Kabler. “I mean, he’s outrageous, he’s jiving, he’s dancing around. This is the blackest character on television, and you’re a white guy. We haven’t had somebody talk jive like that as the star of a show since J.J. on ‘Good Times,’ and it seems to me, isn’t that a bit ironic?”
TV Guide said that racism was the show’s weak point: “What makes a show built on white jokes any better than a show built on black jokes?”
Moffet called the criticism off-base. He said test audiences have gotten the joke, but critics have missed it.
“The whites didn’t understand that we are taking a discrimination issue and turning it on its head,” he said. “Normally it’s blacks that are discriminated against, so we’re turning that around. White critics are uncomfortable with that.”
Moffet also said that critics got the premise of the show all wrong: “This is not about a white guy saving a black station--it’s about the station saving him.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that because of concerns about racial images, Soul’s character would be altered.
“It’s being changed because there was a danger of slipping into stereotype,” Moffet said. “We saw that was not necessary for the series. The listening audience will accept him because he is so funny and so entertaining.
“From the pilot on, the listening audience will know he’s white, and accepts him,” he said. “He’ll talk on the air in a normal voice. This will not be about him fooling the audience.”
He added, “I think it’s a good show, and that people will respond to it. It’s about folks working together. It’s an exploration of race relations in the ‘90s.”
The premise of “Rhythm & Blues” has at least one fan--Vivian Kleiman, a documentary filmmaker who produced “Color Adjustment,” a look at the history of African-Americans on television that aired on PBS earlier this year. “This idea of a white disc jockey at a black station raises a lot of issues,” she said. “If this is handled with dignity, this could be really terrific. It could explore what it really means to be black. It could have a lot of nuance.”
Critics do not seem to have the same criticism of racism against ABC’s “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” but the show’s beginnings have been almost as problematic.
Jeff Franklin, the show’s creator and executive producer, left the series without warning in early September. Although no official reason was given for the departure, industry sources said that ABC and Lorimar did not feel the show lived up to the talent of its cast.
In an interview just a few days before his departure, Franklin, who had previously created the popular ABC situation comedy “Full House,” said he thought “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” would present interesting characters and strong role models. All three of the main characters are friends, and they are professionals.
However, Franklin expressed unhappiness that ABC decided to air a hastily prepared pilot as the first episode. The program that aired was not meant for broadcast, he said, and did not show the main character in the most flattering light.
Mark Cooper (Mark Curry) is a college basketball star who didn’t make it into the pros. He wants a coaching job at his old junior high school, but has to settle for being a substitute teacher.
But little of this was explained in the episode that aired Sept. 22. Cooper was first seen sitting on the couch in a running suit, playing with a basketball, eating pizza and watching television. He joked when his roommate Robin (Dawnn Lewis) came home from her teaching job and berated him for just sitting around.
Later, when Cooper attempted to sub for a teacher at a junior high school class, he was unable to control the students. He started dancing as the students played the radio. He got glued into his seat by a troublesome student. Finally he gained the students’ respect when he glued the problem student in his chair.
Dates said that she was troubled by the episode: “He goes into the classroom and starts acting like a clown. He has no respect for the educational system. Instead of bringing kids up to his level and a new understanding, he went down to their level.”
“Had I known that episode would get on the air, we would have looked at it a lot more closely,” Franklin said. “It initially appears like Mark’s character is just hanging out, waiting for the phone to ring. It didn’t take time to set up that he had been pounding the pavement.”
Franklin said that future episodes would more fully develop Curry’s character while showing him dating and interacting with students. The new executive producer of “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” Danny Kallis, declined comment.
Supporting characters on “Here and Now” and “Out All Night” are also undergoing some alteration because of concerns by producers and creators that they might be seen as one-dimensional clowns.
In “Here and Now,” Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s sidekick at the youth center is “T,” a character played by Daryl (Chill) Mitchell who is described as a “hip and irreverent” youth who is trying to reform from a troubled past of criminal activity. In the first episode, “T” talked about securing some stolen equipment for the youth center.
He’ll undergo some changes in coming episodes, said Mike Milligan, an executive producer and writer of “Here and Now,” who noted that Bill Cosby, the show’s head executive producer, was among those concerned about how “T” came across to viewers initially.
“Mr. Cosby is very aware of the perceptions people have toward characters,” Milligan said. “He sees things that others may not see. It’s safe to say that ‘T’ will remain a comedy character, but he will mature into a more responsible person--even though he’ll have the same past.”
The creators of “Out All Night” are also working to flesh out the character of Vidal Thomas (Duane Martin), who is the center of much of the comedy in the series.
When Vidal was first seen, he was accompanying his friend Jeff Carswell (Morris Chestnut), a New York University honors graduate who was applying for a managerial position at a trendy nightclub owned by Chelsea Paige (Patti LaBelle). Jeff entered the club in a business suit. Vidal entered the club with a T-shirt that read “Just Do Me.” Vidal said he couldn’t wait to ogle all the “honeys” at the club. When he spotted females he admired, he said “BAM!” or “BIP!” He intervened so much in Jeff’s job interview that Jeff finally had to slap his head to try to stop him.
When Jeff and Vidal moved into a fashionable apartment building owned by Paige, Vidal complained, “Man, I haven’t seen any honeys in this building yet. What’s the point of livin’ large if there’s no one around to see how large you are?”
Alan Haymon, co-executive producer of the series, said that Vidal will be seen as more than a joking sidekick in future episodes. “Vidal will be shown to be a multifaceted person,” Haymon said. “He will get involved with the Big Brother program, and he will get into the world of video production.”
Edwards also said that Vidal’s clowning should not be taken too seriously. “There’s nothing wrong with celebrating being in your 20s,” he said. “We should lift our glasses to the Vidals of our time who can enjoy it while it’s happening.”
He said that Vidal “owes more to Sam Malone (the womanizing bartender on “Cheers”) than to J.J. on ‘Good Times’ "--the character to which he’s most often been compared.
Haymon said the most important message of “Out All Night” was in showing two black graduates trying to make it in the world: “It’s truly a positive portrayal of black life and black people. It takes a realistic approach to young black people that will be accessible and enjoyable for all races.”
Topper Carew, one of the executive producers of Fox’s “Martin,” summed up the dilemma that all the producers face:
“We’re trying to maintain a social and cultural integrity. But we’re also trying to put on a show that is entertaining and funny.”
In “Martin,” Lawrence (seen earlier in “Boomerang” and the two “House Party” films) plays a radio talk-show host who is a lot more macho with his listeners than he is with his girlfriend. What has raised the eyebrows of some watchers is Lawrence’s other roles in drag--his imposing mother (complete with mustache) and his man-hungry neighbor Sheneneh, complete with outrageously colored midriff, excessive makeup and an exaggerated rear end.
Carew said that he is aware of the criticisms. “If you lived and died by criticism, there never would have been a civil rights movement,” he said.
“We get a lot of favorable reaction to the show at the street level. We do characterizations that are obviously intended to be funny, but when we do reality, we try to avoid stereotypes.”
Carew and other producers question whether they are being unfairly scrutinized or held to a higher standard than Anglo shows. “Gilligan’s Island,” “Three’s Company” and “Married . . . With Children,” for example, have never been held accountable for not accurately portraying contemporary Anglo values.
“We’re under more of a microscope than, say, the guys on ‘Full House,’ ” said producer Milligan of “Here and Now.” “Those guys could put on dresses and no one would say anything.”
“These shows are reviewed as black shows, not as TV as a whole,” echoed producer Edwards of “Out All Night.” “They’re reviewed on a sociological basis and an entertainment basis. Sometimes that conflicts. Sometimes what makes good sociology does not make great television.”
But Herman Gray, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz, argued that while it’s fine to entertain, the pictures of African-Americans should be painted with a broader brush.
“I used to think that blacks ought to be given the same opportunity to put on eye candy as everyone else,” Gray said. “But given the history of the images that have been presented, it’s not asking too much to ask for the boundaries of traditional television fare to be stretched when it comes to blacks.”
Gray said television should focus more on themes revolving around the black working-class, similar to those portrayed on the critically acclaimed but failed 1987 CBS series “Frank’s Place,” which was about a cafe owner in New Orleans.
Moffet, the executive producer of “Rhythm & Blues,” said he understands the criticism.
“Most of America is not black, and most of their knowledge of blacks is through television, so it is important that blacks be portrayed positively,” Moffet said. “But sometimes we are held to a higher standard in terms of what we can or can’t do, especially when there’s a character who is broader or sillier or based in physical comedy.
“There’s a lot of positives to that. But critics are quicker to jump down the throat of black shows when they show black characters to be human.”
In the long run, whatever the shortcomings of individual programs, the producers believe that this season is a step forward in terms of making blacks more of a visible force on television. “The fortunate byproduct is that a lot of these shows do advance the social agenda, and nothing but good can come from that,” Edwards said.