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Showtime Shoulders a Pioneer’s Burden

Pound for pound, Showtime’s slender lineup of prime-time series remains the boldest, most ethnically diverse in television.

That’s reinforced tonight with the premiering “Soul Food,” a rare drama series about African Americans. Yes, rare even at this late date.

And Monday brought the debut of “Resurrection Blvd.,” the medium’s first weekly drama about Latinos, a tardiness that reflects TV’s tendency to blindly roar through cultural intersections without looking either way.

A single week delivering two sets of TV characters of color who don’t spew one-liners accompanied by electronic yuks? This expanded rainbow is unprecedented, even revolutionary.

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If only it equaled higher achievement.

Better work prevailed on Showtime on Tuesday in “Beggars and Choosers,” starting its second season as an ever-alluring comedy-drama about a struggling TV network. Few series are as much fun as “Beggars and Choosers,” and no comedy on the planet is as risky as Showtime’s “Rude Awakening,” back for a third season Thursday, and again affirming that it needn’t always be funny to be rewarding.

“Rude Awakening” resumes with an especially raw and troubling double-length episode detailing the tortuous struggle of boozing cokehead Billy Frank (Sherilyn Fenn) to climb back on the wagon, hardly conventional fodder for comedy. And resurfacing Friday is Showtime’s sci-fi series “Stargate SG-1,” still watchable in its fourth season.

Not returning are two high-minded but uneven efforts, a pro basketball drama, “The Hoop Life,” and “Linc’s,” an affable comedy set in a bar patronized mostly by African Americans.

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Succeeding them are “Resurrection Blvd.,” which introduced the prizefighting Santiagos of East Los Angeles on Monday in a disappointingly violent commentary on Latino manners, and “Soul Food,” whose protagonists are three African American sisters in Chicago who coexist somewhat testily while leading vastly dissimilar lives.

“Soul Food” deploys its attractive ensemble cast in a smooth, gauzy environment that is refreshingly hood-free without being whitewashed. It’s pleasant enough, but unremarkable. Although from the same production team, it doesn’t approach the warmth, tenderness, charm and seamlessness of the 1997 film “Soul Food,” whose story of crescendoing family values it uses as a launching point.

Firstly, the movie killed off the inspiring family matriarch played by wonderful Irma P. Hall, depriving Showtime of her presence except in occasional flashbacks. Secondly, the movie’s most interestingly flawed character is softened in the series. She’s Teri (Nicole Ari Parker), the corporate attorney whose tiffs with her younger sibling, Maxine (Vanessa Williams), are less fierce in the series than in the original story. Selfish and arrogant, Teri’s bitter rivalry with the stubborn Maxine gave the movie much of its bite.

Finally, “Soul Food” is surprisingly flat, despite script devices that have the youngest sister, Bird (Malinda Williams), and her struggling parolee husband, Lem (Darrin Dewitt Henson), moving in with the affluent Teri, and Lem again being sucked into crime. (Was it too much to hope that a series about African Americans be felon-free?)

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Teri’s low-key former husband, Miles (Isaiah Washington), is still lurking after being supplanted in her life by a hunky 26-year-old (Boris Kodjoe). As in the movie, meanwhile, the family scene-stealer is the bright, sensitive young son of Maxine and her businessman husband, Kenny (Rockmond Dunbar). It’s Ahmad (Aaron Meeks) whose voice-over observations thread and interpret the adults’ world: “I guess the more things change,” he says, “the more they stay the same.”

That applies to “Resurrection Blvd.,” which broke ground as a TV drama about Latinos--bravo for that--while revisiting baggy stereotypes depicting them as hotheaded and violent. Contrast this business-as-usual scenario with “American Family,” the Gregory Nava pilot that CBS declined to pick up recently, despite its engaging story about L.A. Latinos who do not resolve conflicts violently.

Inside the ring, haymakers flew furiously. Outside the ring, the “Resurrection Blvd.” premiere featured a pair of beatings, a shooting and a murder. In the process, it squandered good work by veteran Tony Plana as widowed family patriarch Roberto Santiago and Michael DeLorenzo as his quick-tempered son, Carlos, whose promising career as a middleweight boxer was aborted when he was gunned down by a thug. It was a revenge thing. Carlos had earlier beaten up the shooter as punishment for smacking around his teenage sister, Victoria (Marisol Nichols), who did, after all, slug him first.

Carlos’ younger brother, Alex (Nicholas Gonzalez), then dropped out of UCLA to take Carlos’ place in the ring, and despite having no experience, won his first fight--talk about absurd--against a ranked contender. The episode climaxed with Carlos’ punchy older brother, Ruben (Daniel Zacapa), ambushing and throwing the shooter from a bridge.

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Family solidarity, Latino-style.

Created by Dennis E. Leoni, “Resurrection Blvd.” does have one upwardly mobile character in Carlos’ other sister, Yolanda (Ruth Livier), who works in a Beverly Hills law firm, and their spiny Aunt Bibi (Elizabeth Pena) dispenses sound advice on the home front.

It was ignored Monday by the impetuous males of the family, their destructive actions arising from heated passions, not reason or logic. And in the first scene of a future episode supplied by Showtime, the bitter Carlos flashes a gun.

If “Resurrection Blvd.” were among many TV series about Latinos, no problem. As a one-of-a-kind creation, though, it has a pioneer’s burden to offer a more balanced depiction of this burgeoning, richly varied segment of California than the one given here.

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* “Soul Food” can be seen tonight at 10 on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

* “Resurrection Blvd.” can be seen Mondays at 10 p.m.; “Beggars and Choosers,” Tuesdays at 10 p.m.; and “Rude Awakening,” Thursdays at 10 p.m.

*

Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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