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‘Moesha’ Tribute a Rare Museum Piece

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Moesha,” UPN’s hip-hop-flavored comedy that broke ground as the first network TV series to revolve around an African American teenage girl, will receive special recognition tonight in a salute by the Museum of Television & Radio during the 16th annual William S. Paley Television Festival.

The tribute to the comedy, which stars Brandy as the occasionally rebellious but conscientious title character, is something of a landmark in another way: “Moesha” is one of the few contemporary and ongoing African American sitcoms to be showcased by the museum, considered one of the television industry’s highest honors.

While programs such as the sketch comedy series “In Living Color,” the working-class comedy “Roc” and the police drama “New York Undercover” have been feted at previous festivals, other popular urban-based shows like “Martin,” “Living Single,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Wayans Bros.,” “The Jamie Foxx Show” and “The Steve Harvey Show” have been overlooked.

“It freaks me out that this is finally happening, and it’s very exciting, but it’s so strange that it’s taken so long,” said Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays Dee, Moesha’s stepmother. “This is a show that transcends the barriers of being too black or too urban.”

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Robert Batscha, president of the museum, said that scheduling conflicts and timing have prevented tributes to other black-oriented shows.

“It’s certainly something we’re aware of, and we have certainly made attempts,” Batscha said. “But we just couldn’t work out the schedules.”

He also pointed out that the museum has often been out in front in terms of recognizing African American-based series: “We did ‘In Living Color’ in its first season. We were one of the first to recognize ‘Roc.’ ”

Batscha said the timing was right for “Moesha.”

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“The general consensus is that it’s a good show and it’s just time for us to do it,” he said. “We like to see how a show develops. It’s much better for us to do it now than when it first came on.”

Since its premiere in 1996, “Moesha” has often been praised as a youth-oriented show that celebrates family values even as it embraces hip-hop fashions, language and trends. Brandy in the last few years has become a major star, with leading roles in the TV movie “Cinderella” and the feature “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer,” and has also become a top recording artist with several hits.

But there have been a few bumps along the way. CBS passed on the show during its development, telling its producers that it did not think a show about a black female teenager would have enough viewer appeal.

And those associated with the show say it is often overlooked, particularly in terms of being honored within the industry. For example, the series has never received an Emmy nomination.

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“What’s happening at the museum also makes up for the fact that we’ve never even won a NAACP Image Award,” said Ralph Farquhar, one of the comedy’s creators.

Sara Finney and Vida Spears, the comedy’s executive producers, said they are used to not being taken seriously by the industry.

“I stopped worrying a long time ago about what people think,” Spears said. “We can’t let that limit us. That’s why this evening is such a pleasant surprise.”

Added Farquhar: “I certainly think ‘Moesha’ is a show that stands out in terms of shows dealing with the family dynamic. It’s taken a lot of time just because we have black performers. But really, this is a family comedy that is just a part of classic American television. We just freshened up the look a bit.”

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Ralph said she lobbied the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences last year to make “Moesha” the subject of a tribute after a viewer interviewed during the broadcast of the Emmy Awards that she loved the fact that black images had come all the way “from Beulah to Moesha.”

“So I’m very happy that the museum is doing this for the show. I know it is a rare thing to receive such an honor. But it also demonstrates how special ‘Moesha’ is in terms of how the show relates to viewers, no matter what color they are.”

Finney said she is just pleased that the museum is recognizing “Moesha”: “We all feel so honored. It’s been a long time coming.”

* The Museum of Television & Radio tribute to “Moesha” is tonight at 7 at the Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd. Tickets are $13-$15.

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