"Nothing gets me going like the smell of gunpowder in the morning," young Tasha Mosley tells her mother after a pre-breakfast walk through their Crenshaw District neighborhood.
And nothing on television quite gets going like "South Central," the bracing, heroically good half-hour series premiering Tuesday night on Fox.
Mingling dark comedy with dark drama, upbeats with downbeats, "South Central" is about a black family facing the challenges of living in a section of Los Angeles made globally famous--and, some would argue, indelibly stereotyped--by riots in 1992.
Single mother Joan Mosley (Tina Lifford) is sinking from the middle class into poverty after being laid off from a responsible school job she held for 13 years, a piece of misfortune she's hiding from her three kids.
Out of money and credit, she's tenaciously fighting for the survival of 6-year-old Deion (Keith Mbulo), loquacious Tasha (Tasha Scott) and increasingly rebellious Andre, or "Dre" (Larenz Tate), her teen-age son who appears drawn to the gangbanging that killed his older brother.
"South Central" is comically incorrect. Out of step with the present wave of half hours in prime time, it seamlessly couples mirth and heartache while foregoing cheap one-liners in favor of unforced humor that flows from reality.
It can be very funny, then abruptly lower the boom--as when Joan, trying to hide her embarrassment, is forced to put back her groceries when she can't produce the cash to pay for them at the neighborhood co-op where she bounced her last check. The scene is devastating; Lifford's acting memorable.
Nor does "South Central" have its characters graciously turn the other cheek. When learning in episode two that his mother has lost her job, Andre angrily snaps: "They always fire the niggers first!" It's a stinging condemnation that resonates the hostility of many blacks toward a system they believe is racist.
There is something sociologically rigid about "South Central." As in last year's admirable HBO miniseries, "Laurel Avenue," once again on television we have a black family associated with an underclass whose calling cards are crime and violence. The familiar checklist in "South Central" also includes an absentee father and a single mother trying to shield her brood from the surrounding blight of poverty, gangs and, of course, drugs.
When Andre wants to start carrying a beeper, a trademark of criminals in the 'hood, his mother forbids it, fearing the Los Angeles Police Department will take him for a drug dealer or a gangbanger. "Why not just carry a sign: 'I'm young, I'm black, I'm stupid, shoot me.' "
And when an older drug-dealing friend gives Andre a wad of cash in the second episode, his mother explodes again and tries to flush it down the toilet.
Of course, the Mosleys of "South Central" are no more typical of black families than the Conners of ABC's "Roseanne" are of white ones. Yet, like the Conners, they do depict with intelligence and sensitivity a segment of America that exists and, incidentally, one that is otherwise just about invisible on weekly series in prime time.
You don't see it in "Sister, Sister," the just-premiered ABC comedy about black twin sisters living an upper-middle-class teenhood with their respective adoptive parents. Nor in "704 Houser," Norman Lear's new comedy about a middle-class black couple--and their conservative son--who live in the same house that bigoted Archie Bunker and his family once occupied. It arrives on CBS next Monday night.
In particular, "South Central" rises above the spreading minstrelization of blacks on much of television, from the "Waz-up?" and "bitch" monologues of HBO's popular "Def Comedy Jam" where black performers can be seen defining themselves largely by their libidos, to Fox's "In Living Color," crotch-grabbing "Martin" and "Living Single," which spreads the word that college-educated black females with good jobs act like idiots.
In shrewdly staking out the young and the hip as its core audience, while coloring its bottom line ebony, Fox has rolled out whole conveyor belts of black-tilted comedy series, the best of which--prior to "South Central"--was "Roc," whose working-class protagonist has always had a certain dignity.
Most of these shows, though, are as monotonously stereotypical in their own way as the widely repudiated "Amos 'n' Andy" was generations ago. In fact, the gap between the new and old stereotypes is not all that wide.
"South Central," on the other hand, is a highly worthy addition to prime time. Created by Ralph Farquhar, who is black, and Michael J. Weithorn, who is white, it was acquired by Fox only after CBS dropped it from development, perhaps envisioning something breezier and less pungent than the smell of gunpowder in the morning. Their refusal to compromise is a credit to them both.
* "South Central" premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on KTTV-TV Channel 11.
* FIRST EPISODE CRITICIZED: Show lacks strong males, say groups who oppose "South Central." F10