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Hot Topics Thicken Plot for ‘Moesha’ : Television: UPN comedy turns to grittier material that veteran staffers call stereotypical.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Moesha” is experiencing growing pains.

The UPN comedy, which stars Brandy, is in the midst of being revamped by the network and its producers, Big Ticket Television, as it moves through the remainder of its fifth season. The changes include more gritty and topical story lines involving children born out of wedlock, family deception and betrayal, gangs, sex, Internet relationships and drugs.

“We are all looking for February sweeps episodes that make ‘Moesha’ appointment television for every week of sweeps,” read a Nov. 13 memo from UPN to producers.

Disagreements over this shift of direction, which will begin around February, led to last week’s firing of Vida Spears, one of “Moesha’s” three creators, who had remained with the series. With Spears’ departure, several production sources feel that the very foundation of the series is being shaken. The restructuring will also mean greater influence for Brandy and her manager and mother, Sonja Norwood.

In the wide-ranging spectrum of television shows revolving around African-American characters, “Moesha” has always stood apart from the pack. The show’s creators--Spears, Sara V. Finney and Ralph Farquhar--explored largely uncharted territory, basing the comedy around a precocious black teenage girl. They also put at its center a stable middle-class black family with strong values, free of dysfunction and ruled by an overprotective but well-intentioned father who fought to maintain high moral and ethical standards within the family unit.

But as Brandy moves into adulthood, and her character moves into college, UPN, Brandy and her mother felt the show had lost much of its relevance and depth. The concern was that Moesha and her family had become “too perfect,” turning the comedy into more of a Saturday-morning version of a black family.

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The show’s writer/producers were repeatedly pressed to add edgy elements to the show, but the creative forces behind “Moesha” successfully opposed it. So “Moesha” did not include stories of black gangs and guns or sex among young people.

Since its debut in August 1996, “Moesha” has won critical acclaim and accolades from parents, including a Parent’s Choice Silver Honor in 1996. Along the way it has become a staple of UPN’s prime-time schedule.

Spears had resisted the changes, production sources said, wanting to stay true to the show’s core roots of family values. But UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan characterized the changes as necessary to recapture the honesty and authenticity of “Moesha.”

Changes Stir Anxiety

Behind the Scenes

The most significant shift in direction--and the one causing the greatest behind-the-scenes anxiety--revolves around Moesha’s father, Frank Mitchell (William Allen Young), and a new character named Dorien, a troubled teen who moves into the Mitchell household. The character is played by Ray J, Brandy’s brother.

Larry Lyttle, president of Big Ticket Television, called the plot line one that will open up a wide range of possibilities for the characters.

“We’re really going to expand the boundaries,” said Lyttle. “We’re creating a situation where we’re showing that a family is not always perfect, that the Mitchell family can have faults and defects just like any other family, regardless of ethnicity. The father is a really good man, but something happened when his marriage was experiencing some ups and downs, and it’s painful for him to acknowledge. This will put a stress and strain on the family. It won’t invalidate him in any way. They will have to learn how to deal with his hypocrisy.”

Another story line may have the Dorien character flirting with getting involved with gangs at Crenshaw High. Other ideas being proposed include Moesha losing her virginity, Moesha’s stepmother Dee (Sheryl Lee Ralph) becoming pregnant, Frank discovering he may have cancer, and Dorien sleeping with a girl who says she’s HIV-positive.

A Stable Father

Faces Complexities

Dorien was introduced in this season’s opener as Frank’s 16-year-old nephew and Moesha’s cousin, who had run away from home when he was upset that his father stood him up. But in an episode now planned for the February sweeps period, Frank will reveal that Dorien is actually his son, whom he had out of wedlock with another woman while still married to Moesha’s now-deceased mother. Dorien had been raised by Frank’s sister.

Spears had written the season opener, in which there is no indication of a hidden relationship between Frank and Dorien. The idea was conceived by the newly named executive producers Fred Johnson, Jacque Edmonds and Warren Hutcherson, who were all promoted from co-executive producer positions.

The revelation, complain show insiders, obliterates the established background of Frank, who had been portrayed as an upstanding professional man and loving father. It will expose him as a liar to his family, possibly alienate longtime fans, and feed into stereotypes about black men who abandon their children, they fear.

Nunan disagreed: “The producers and the studio wanted to return to some of the more relevant issues that Brandy and the Mitchell family would be facing at this stage of their lives.

“We have a superstar in the lead and a very good cast. If the show felt more honest and contemporary, it would perform better [in the ratings]. Many viewers have written it off as a Saturday morning show that is too tame for their interests.”

Nunan added, “We are not re-inventing the show. Viewers will not notice a big change, other than the episodes getting better. The show isn’t broken. We’re just hoping to improve it.”

Another reason behind the change is ultimately to position Ray J for his own spinoff series. The youth has been working for years to establish his own acting and singing career out of the shadow of his more famous sister.

Responding to concerns from show veterans, Nunan said, “ ‘Moesha’ is our most successful comedy, critically and commercially. We won’t do anything to put forth racial stereotypes. We’re not creating conflict for conflict’s sake.”

He added, “As for the question of gangs, Dorien, who acts tough with his friends, would inevitably have contact with a gang, even if indirectly. Gangs in high schools are an issue, whether it’s in Pacific Palisades or South Central. How can this issue be ignored? To ignore it is to be unreal. It was another example of not letting real life infringe upon this perfect world.”

Production on “Moesha” is expected to resume today. The show has been shut down for several weeks following the star’s hospitalization for dehydration.

Some writers and producers applauded the revamp.

Said Bennie R. Richburg Jr., executive producer of the WB’s “The Jamie Foxx Show”: “I would disagree that this is playing toward stereotypes. This can all be positive. What it seems like is that Brandy wants to do stories about what really goes on with a young urban woman. She’s tired of doing silly teen shows. It’s not a black and white issue. They’re just making some good changes and seeing how the characters deal with it.”

Todd Boyd, a USC professor of cinema, added, “We as African Americans often impose self-censorship on ourselves. Certainly these issues are of relevance in the black community. The show should be able to handle this in a way that is not stereotypical.”

Still, some behind-the-scenes veterans working on the show are privately up in arms.

“People on the show feel the injustice is so great,” said a source associated with “Moesha.” “We are at a time when black people are begging the network to let us in and tell some real stories. But on ‘Moesha,’ we are still a victim of what the network wants to say about black people. They are selling out the show for ratings.”


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