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They Vote by Remote : As UPN debuts ‘Desmond Pfeiffer,’ viewers tune in other channels.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” the controversial new UPN series about a black butler and advisor in the Lincoln White House, garnered low ratings and even worse reaction with its first telecast Monday night.

“It was pretty feeble,” film and television director Michael Schultz said in an interview Tuesday about the show’s premiere. “It was a tawdry comedy that was more like a skit on ‘Saturday Night Live’ than a sitcom. It’s certainly not something I would watch again.”

Actress Anna Maria Horsford, who co-stars in the WB’s “The Wayans Bros.” and has appeared in several films and series, was even more blunt in her assessment: “It’s worse than I thought it would be. I came to this show with an open mind, but I didn’t find it clever at all. I know it’s supposed to be a satire, but for a satire to work, there has to be some truth. There was not an inkling of truth to this.”

The Civil War-era comedy had been the target of recent protests by local African American organizations that objected to its setting at a time when slavery still existed in the United States. But viewers contacted Tuesday said what bothered them for the most part was simply the lack of humor.

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Delores Robinson, executive producer of last season’s Fox comedy “Between Brothers,” said, “I wanted to laugh, or I wanted to be offended. But the only thing that was insulted was my intelligence. It was an attempt to be clever that just came off as silly.”

Meryl Marshall, president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, said that despite the protests, she feels “Desmond Pfeiffer” deserves a chance.

“It’s a really tough call, and satire is very, very difficult to do,” Marshall said. “But political satire belongs on TV, and that’s what this is. You can’t kill political satire, and it deserves a place on television. Whether this show belongs, I will not take a stand. But the audience can decide.”

Meanwhile, Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade and the leader of a coalition of African American activists dedicated to having the show pulled off the air, said Tuesday that they would not only continue their campaign against UPN and the series, but also would begin targeting advertisers who sponsored this week’s installment.

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He said the coalition, along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, will meet today to discuss a strategy.

“We are not going after this network with idle threats, and we are not dissuaded from our goal,” Bakewell said.

Products advertised during the show included Finesse shampoo, M&Ms; candies, Coco’s restaurants and Degree deodorant.

“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” stars Chi McBride in the title role as a black English nobleman who becomes a butler and advisor to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Pfeiffer is portrayed as the most intellectual and articulate person within the White House, with the rest of the white characters, particularly Lincoln, coming off as buffoonish and sex-crazed.

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Producers of the show have denied that it has anything to do with or makes light of slavery. It is, they maintain, a satire of the Clinton administration.

The controversy surrounding the show did not translate into a large viewership. Even by the standards of the fledgling UPN network, “Desmond Pfeiffer” earned a less-than-glowing average of 4% of the available audience, based on preliminary figures from 40 metered markets. In New York and Los Angeles, where the protest was more focused, the show did a little better, attracting 5% of the audience.

The episode that aired Monday revolved around Lincoln’s telegraph relationship with a mystery woman, and contained several references to President Clinton and his current sexual controversy.

Some of those watching found the show more politically than racially offensive.

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Said Schultz: “I think the show was in very bad taste in terms of the political climate today. It’s a cynical view of American politics.”

Robinson agreed: “I don’t find it racist. I thought it was dumb. Desmond isn’t a slave, and the characters aren’t objectionable. There could be humor, but it’s not there now.”

Horsford, on the other hand, said she felt the comedy was insidious in the way that it is set during an era of slavery, yet never mentioned the topic.

“This show is about the Civil War, but there’s no clue on what the war is being fought for,” Horsford said. “I find it offensive that they treat slavery like it never existed. This is as much a fantasy, as if they had said that during this period, people could fly from one state to another. And why would they pick this era to deal with Clinton?”

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The episode shown Monday was not the pilot for the series, which had sparked much of the criticism. UPN postponed broadcasting that installment after protests over an early version that contained a comical scene in which the bodies of two men in England are shown after they have been hanged. Their heads are covered, so it is impossible to tell their race.

Although UPN already had decided to cut that scene and another that showed Pfeiffer being transported by ship to the “southernmost part of America, the part where they grow cotton,” critics still objected to other references within the episode, including one in which a white man orders a relaxing Pfeiffer to get his legs off a kitchen table because “the slaves haven’t been emancipated yet.” The airing of that episode has not yet been determined.


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