The 19-year-old daughter of the president of the United States has a problem. On one hand, her romance with her new boyfriend couldn't be better. But trouble is brewing.
For Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss)--the first daughter on NBC's White House drama, "The West Wing"--the dilemma is that her beau, Charlie Young (Dule Hill), is black. White supremacists have been sending death threats to the White House, and an increasingly worried president (Martin Sheen) blocks the couple plans to go to the opening of a hot new club. When Zoey tells Charlie, who is also her father's personal aide, during a lunch, he storms out of the restaurant.
The scene, which appears in tonight's installment of "The West Wing," is just one example of an onslaught of prime-time series that are aggressively tackling interracial romance. Until a few seasons ago, such relationships were a rarity on network television, considered too controversial and sensitive to depict or explore. Now at least six prime-time dramas and comedies have story lines revolving around mixed-race couples.
"There's this 'toe-in-the-water' approach now in television about showing blacks and whites in love on television," said Robert M. Entman, director of the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University and co-author of the upcoming book "The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America."
"Both 'ER' and 'Ally McBeal' have had these kinds of romances in the past few seasons, and it didn't result in outrage or have an effect on ratings," Entman said. "So now there's a little more boldness in approaching interracial relationships."
The story lines revolving around interracial relationships are blossoming during a television season that has been blasted by the NAACP and other minority groups for the lack of cultural diversity on the four major networks. And while "The Jeffersons" of the mid-'70s featured a long-married interracial couple, this season's focus is on the tension of courtship and the societal conflict it can provoke.
Andrew Rojecki, who co-wrote "The Black Image in the White Mind" with Entman, suggests the stormy interracial romance a few seasons ago on "ER" between surgeons Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle) and Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston) was the main force in tearing down the resistance toward showing black and white couplings.
"That relationship really challenged the cultural and social taboos on television," Rojecki said. "It was done on a Top 10 show that appeals to both black and white viewing audiences, which tend to have different tastes in what shows they watch. What is happening now with all these other shows is terrific. Whether it's a harbinger of things to come remains to be seen."
Sensitive Area for Promoting Shows
Producers suggest the trend is primarily driven by a wealth of largely uncharted story lines. Indeed, while audiences appear to be more receptive, such plots remain a sensitive area for the networks' promotional machines.
The current field of relationships cuts across age, social and professional barriers. Sexual and romantic tension has been building on CBS' "Judging Amy" between Judge Amy Gray (Amy Brenneman) and her black court services officer Bruce Van Exel (Richard T. Jones), and a recent episode showed her dreaming about a steamy erotic encounter with him in her office. On ABC's "Once and Again," Grace Manning (Julia Whelan), the high-strung, awkward teenage daughter of Lily Manning (Sela Ward), is falling in love with her black classmate Jared (Robert Richard). CBS' inner-city hospital drama, "City of Angels," features a young Jewish resident, Dr. Geoffrey Weiss (Phil Buckman), conducting a tense romance with registered nurse Grace Patterson (Maya Rudolph) over the vociferous protest of her father. College students Shawn (Rider Strong) and Angela (Trina McGee-Davis) are continuing their courtship on ABC's "Boy Meets World." And the upcoming WB political drama, "D.C.," about twentysomethings in the nation's capital, features an interracial couple, TV news producer Sarah Logan (Kristanna Loken) and U.S. Supreme Court clerk Lewis Freeman (Daniel Sunjata), who are living together.
With a few exceptions, producers of the series say the public response to the interracial dating has been positive, with viewers only occasionally registering opposition.
Hill of "The West Wing" said, "I thought there might be some negative reaction. But the letters we're getting are all positive. People really seem to like it."
Actor Robert Guillaume believes depicting interracial relationships is less of a problem now than it was in 1989 when he co-created and starred in an ABC situation comedy in which his character, a marriage counselor, became involved with his white secretary. "The Robert Guillaume Show" was canceled soon after its premiere, and Guillaume blamed part of the rejection on viewers who could not get past the premise.
"I was trying to leap over what I thought was nonsense at the time," said Guillaume, who currently appears on ABC's "Sports Night." "I wanted to show that people are just people no matter what they are, but that really frightens folks. I hope that what we did with that show, no matter how small and unsuccessful it was, helped to make the idea of black and white dating on television a little more palatable."
"West Wing" executive producer Thomas Schlamme said the trend of showing interracial romances on television is indicative of the relaxing of the sensitivities in society: "The taboo has started to diminish, and now you can see more and more in movies and in plays."
Barbara Hall, an executive producer of "Judging Amy," added, "There's usually a 10-year lag time between what is going on in society and what can be shown on television. Writers and producers have come to understand that television really does need to reflect more of what's going on in today's world."
Even with the growing prominence of interracial romances, none of the current relationships is central to the series. And although "ER" and "Ally McBeal" have both examined interracial romances in the past few seasons, those relationships were not long-lasting, and ended bitterly or abruptly.
Said Entman: "In both of those cases, the relationships were problematic. The implicit message was that such relationships are unworkable. The question now is whether the relationships being shown now will deepen and mature."
Producers are largely trying to straddle the line between making racial differences a key conflict in the relationship, and downplaying or ignoring race entirely, as in last season's "Ally McBeal." Show creator/executive producer David Kelley had said at the time that he wanted to show a loving relationship where race was not a factor.
In "West Wing's" romance between Zoey and Charlie, Schlamme said he and fellow executive producers Aaron Sorkin and John Wells are more interested in exploring the political ramifications of such a relationship in the White House: "It makes for good drama. And we can also look at the drama of hate in this country. The racial aspect is not at the center."
"Once and Again" executive producer Ed Zwick said the new romance between that show's teens will explore their racial differences: "It's in their world, and there will be instances where it matters, and instances where it doesn't matter. The parents on both sides . . . will react to it."
Zwick added that the inspiration for the relationship came from singer-songwriter Jackson Browne: "He saw the pilot, and he said that Grace looked like someone who would be involved with someone of a mixed race. It seemed plausible."
Meanwhile, Hall initially planned for the characters Brenneman and Jones portray on "Judging Amy" to just have a professional friendship. "But the chemistry between the two actors, and their characters, were so electric it seemed like we would be ignoring it if we didn't develop it," Hall said. "We get a lot of feedback from viewers saying they enjoy the sexual tension. We don't really deal with race in the relationship. We deal with it when the two confront it in the courtroom."
As Entman puts it: "The real breakthrough would be if there was a major series with a black man and a white woman right in the center of it. But I think that's still a ways away."