The Invisible Man, Alive and Well (And You Still Can't See Him)

Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

Just the other day, it seems--about 1980, actually--I was mounting a soapbox to say in print how rotten it was that no broadcast network had aired a prime-time drama series about blacks.

No, not about scaly, oozing, web-footed, three-headed aliens from the planet Voltron. About African Americans. Nothing revolutionary. You know, something on the order of black cast, black stories?

Wow! What a difference 20 years make!

Not a lot.

As someone who is sometimes called racist, I'm reluctant to use that hot brand on the TV industry's gatekeepers based on just a couple of decades of circumstantial evidence. But if it looks, feels and tastes like a rutabaga, what else can it be?

Not that labeling much matters. Even if it is just an oversight (smirk, snicker) or essentially profit-driven, shame is shame, and results are what count.

"I am an invisible man," says the African American narrator in one of this century's great novels, the one about a man whose black form fades into the darkness of the coal cellar where he lives.

The hero of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" goes on: "No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Blacks have rarely been entire no-shows on television, however, just frequently ridiculed, distorted, unsung and grossly underrepresented in comparison with their actual numbers, about 12% of the nation's population.

To be fair, such high-profile cable series as Showtime's "Linc's" and Lifetime's "Any Day Now," among others, prominently feature blacks (more about those shows shortly). And blacks have stood out this decade in many TV movies, a number of broadcast network comedies and a handful of quality dramas ranging from the medical series "ER" on NBC to such elite crime-law hours as ABC's "NYPD Blue" and "The Practice" and NBC's "Law & Order" and "Homicide: Life on the Street."

Although seamlessly integrating their African American characters with white characters, each of these series has punched up story lines touching on black themes. Having pivotal protagonist Andy Sipowicz be a flat-out anti-black bigot has allowed "NYPD Blue," in particular, to depict an entire tinderbox of emotions stimulated by racial volatility without appearing to be forced or contrived.

And in the wings for the coming mid-season, with its cast mostly of blacks, is the CBS urban hospital drama "City of Angels" from Paris Barclay and "NYPD Blue" co-creator Steven Bochco.

So . . . why the big snit? Why the news stories citing a lack of diversity? Why is the oft-slumbering NAACP now getting all huffy and threatening legal actions and boycotts against the four strongest networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox?

There are 26 reasons.

That's the number of new series premiering on those major networks this fall, not one of which features a minority member as the lead. That's astounding!

That's outrageous.

That's television.

Not that anti-minority collusion exists among these fierce competitors, only that when it comes to color coding, they instinctively stagger forward, arms outstretched, in sightless, mindless unison like zombies in "Night of the Living Dead."

There's blame galore to go around. And responding to negative publicity, some new shows have begun adding ethnic cast members.

Yet if there's one new fall series whose absence of minorities is especially boggling, it's NBC's "The West Wing," a drama about the White House whose large ensemble cast is headed by Martin Sheen as the president.

The executive producer, the same John Wells who heads ethnically diverse "ER," ironically, admits "agonizing over" the homogeneity of "The West Wing." And no wonder. Can you imagine any president of this era, his personal feelings aside, being politically inane enough to surround himself entirely with members of his own race? Well, here he is, for this is a White House whose name accurately describes the administration occupying it. There's not even a token minority to play a token minority.

Communications Director Toby Ziegler: white. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn: white. Press Secretary C.J. Gregg: white. Chief of Staff Leo McGarry: white. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman: white. Political consultant Madeline Hampton: white.

Well, there's always the kitchen.

Putting this in context, when it comes to short-sheeting segments of America, whether through sins of commission or omission, television has spent decades being pretty much an equal opportunity offender. The broadcast networks are doing the burgeoning post-60 crowd no favors either, for example, in a batch of new fall shows where they show up, when at all, as kinky oldies.

Yet forget about new series that made the fall schedule. Neither NBC nor Fox had even pilots with ethnic leads, and only two of 25 series prototypes that ABC chose from in making up its fall schedule had a minority lead.

It's cable where some of the boldest moves have been made when it comes to minorities in evening entertainment series, from HBO's prison drama "Oz" to Showtime's new sports drama "The Hoop Life" and comedy-drama "Linc's" to Lifetime's serious buddy series "Any Day Now."

Set in Birmingham, Ala., "Any Day Now" depicts the closeness between a hard-driving single black attorney played by Lorraine Toussaint and a white homemaker and wannabe writer played by Annie Potts, and woven through each hour are flashbacks to their childhoods together during the turbulent civil rights years of the 1960s. It's smart, tender and funny.

The laugh-trackless "Linc's" is nearly all black, its setting a middle-class Washington bar where the chatter turns on sex and politics, and whose low-key owner, Russell A. Lincoln, is played by Steven Williams. Pam Grier plays his careerist girlfriend and Golden Brooks his flighty barmaid, and his regular customers include a hooker played by Daphne Maxwell-Reid and a stodgy sophisticate played by Georg Stanford Brown, who's been managing the senatorial campaign of another patron (the show's only white regular), played by Joe Inscoe.

Although "Any Day Now" possibly would have a shot at making it on a broadcast network, the mellow rhythms of likable, comfortable, intelligent "Linc's" are out of sync with the big-laugh-seeking black half-hours that usually earn spots in prime time.

As was Hugh Wilson's CBS series that surely inspired Tim Reid to create "Linc's" with Susan Fales-Smith. Starring the African American Reid as the owner of a small Creole restaurant in New Orleans, that wonderful show's name was "Frank's Place," and its cast also was nearly all black. Although one of the most charming comedy-dramas ever, "Frank's Place" lasted just one season in the late 1980s, its lethally low Nielsens bolstering those arguing that white America simply would not watch black characters who were not tailored to guffaws. As many successful TV movies starring blacks affirm, however, that is just not true.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Way back in 1977 (when some of today's top network executives were probably still teething), the gargantuan success of "Roots"--with its black heroes and white villains--was hailed as a landmark.

After all, it averaged more than 80 million viewers for its first seven nights, and the audience for its finale topped 100 million. Although at least one major sympathetic white character not in Alex Haley's book was created apparently to reassure white viewers, the gaudily profitable miniseries was still viewed as watershed TV, something whose impact would endure.

And it did. It and its more moderately successful sequel helped usher in an era of marathon miniseries. Hooray, hooray. What didn't materialize was the Big Black Breakthrough in weekly drama that many were predicting.

Consequently, all these years later, too many minority members "of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids," still remain invisible on too much of TV, characters who, like Ralph Ellison's hero "might even be said to possess a mind." And based on these new fall shows, there's no cause for optimism.

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