Television is at its best often when making viewers think and squirm. So try this.
The contemporary setting is a tense courtroom in Birmingham, Ala., where an expert on the evolution of words is testifying that "nigger" is "the most explosive racial slur you can hurl at an African American. Its history," he adds, "is steeped in subjugation and severe depression."
"Even in today's society?" asks defense attorney Rene Jackson, knowing the answer.
"Especially in today's society," he replies.
There's much to praise in a series daring to spin much of an episode on the impact of a single word, one evoking a Rolodex of grim images from slavery and segregation to flaming crosses, firebombs and bodies dangling from trees.
That series, on cable's Lifetime, is "Any Day Now," the boldest weekly drama you may not be watching. That mistake can be rectified when it returns from another short break Feb. 18.
Mark next month's calendar, too. The shooting script for the show's March 18 season finale--when Jackson puts "the word 'nigger' on trial" in defending an African American teen who killed a white boy--promises highly provocative TV.
Thoughtful, volcanic, important.
The ongoing theme of "Any Day Now" transcends February, when much of TV becomes a quasi-black ghetto of African American programs to commemorate Black History Month. Herd 'em in, herd 'em out.
In addition to a spate of documentaries, the fare this time ranges from Showtime's nimble but shallow "Bojangles," with Gregory Hines leaving barely a tap print as dancing great Bill Robinson, to HBO's magnetic re-creation of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that nailed into place a founding plank of the modern civil rights movement.
The shadowy pendulum swinging across the screen in "Boycott" is a lynched black. And talk about the sting of incendiary epithets knifing across decades. You hear in abundance, during HBO's documentary-style account of black bus boycotters facing up to white bigotry in 1955-56, the mother of racial slurs that 45 years later "Any Time Now" is making its March 18 centerpiece.
That double-sized, two-hour finale is titled "It's Not Just a Word."
Nor has "Any Day Now" been just any series in nearly three seasons of raking over the still-raw sores of U.S. racism with candor, but also tenderness and humor. Even when its performance hasn't quite reached its lofty aspirations, "Any Day Now" has stood taller than most of TV in its portrayal of two best friends from childhood, African American Rene (Lorraine Toussaint) and Mary Elizabeth "M.E." Sims (Annie Potts), who is white.
Rene is a single, elegant, hard-driving attorney, M.E. a homey college-dropout mother of two. Her oldest is 17-year-old Kelly (Olivia Friedman), who is about to marry Ajoni Williams (Derrex Brady), the black teen whose child she is carrying, a race mixing that gnaws at M.E.'s boozing six-pack of a husband, Colliar (Chris Mulkey).
Although basically decent, he's a crossroads of conflicts about race, and seethes about Ajoni becoming his son-in-law and the newlyweds moving into the Sims home. Colliar and M.E. clash thunderously in the Feb. 18 episode, when after the wedding he angrily protests "some black kid doin' my daughter down the hall."
Even in the best series major characters sometimes sound alike. Yet so separate and distinctive are the voices of Rene and M.E. that they would seem an odd coupling if not for their shared girlhood that "Any Day Now" returns to in flashbacks, connecting present times to the anti-black hatred and violence of the late '60s when M.E.'s own redneck Uncle Jimmy was a Klansman.
"Any Day Now" has truly come of age this season, its largely unsung arrival as one of TV's finest dramas culminating in next month's finale where the "N-word"--although not a stranger to this series--this time is spoken a whopping 61 times. But never gratuitously.
"There is no other word like it," said Nancy Miller, the white executive producer who co-wrote the finale with Denitria Harris-Lawrence, an African American who can't recall ever being hit by the racial slur she and Miller wove through this partially shot episode.
"Lorraine has," said Miller of the gifted actress who plays Rene. "I asked her if it ruined her day, and she said it depends on what kind of day she's having."
Before ending with a maternity cliffhanger, the finale has Rene defending Ajoni's friend, who is charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for fatally striking a white kid he says called him "nigger" in an argument after a basketball game. He claims he and Ajoni were surrounded by angry, taunting whites when the word "just shot through me, and I thought, this is it, I'm dead."
Rene will argue in court that the 16-year-old white victim "threw the first punch" when he hurled the racial epithet. The word is unique in the English language, she insists to M.E., more savage, jarring and wounding than slurs aimed at Asians, Jews, Hispanics, Italians, gays, you name it. "Even the worst word you can call a woman isn't as bad," she says. "What other word has as much power?. . . . Just say it and you think of slaves and lynchings."
Whether it registers higher on the Richter scale than, say, "fag" or "kike" is arguable. Yet Rene's thoughts mirror those of Miller, who was born in Louisiana, reared in Oklahoma and each summer visited her grandparents in Birmingham, hearing blacks called "nigras" and "coloreds."
Flash forward to the present. "I really wanted to explore this word because it is so volatile," Miller said. "I brought [her idea] to the writers [four black women and two white men in addition to Miller], and we just started talking about it." They talked for a month, she said, debating how much "power" remained in a word now routinely used by black rappers and comics, as well as by African Americans street-talking to each other in a friendly way.
Although Miller was opposed to any term "invented to make a human being a nonhuman, an animal," some of the show's African American writers felt the word had evolved so far beyond its earlier meaning that it was time, in effect, to get over it.
Then, Miller says, she started calling them the N-word: "Even though they knew why I was doing this kind of stuff, eventually it got under their skin."
So the script trudged forward. "When Nancy first brought it up, I said there was no way we'll be allowed to do it the way we want to," said Harris-Lawrence, a Los Angeles native ending her first season with the show. "But Lifetime surprised me."
Lifetime "was receptive from the beginning," Miller said, "but they wanted us to make it more accessible." So on came the schoolboy name-calling tiff in place of the writers' original scenario having the word first mentioned on a billboard as part of an academic experiment.
In addition, Lifetime asked them to lower the script's racial-epithet count. "We ended up taking out about 20," Harris-Lawrence said. "We never set out to say it as often as we could," Miller said. "If that's what someone would say, that's what we wrote."
The challenge of co-writing the script intimidated Harris-Lawrence at first. "When Nancy asked me to do it, I was honored," she said. "Then after that I was scared to death. I knew the importance of it, and I didn't want to let her down."
Unforeseen is how viewers will respond. Miller said when she told Mike Pavone, who plays racist Uncle Jimmy, to expect hate mail, he replied: "I don't care if I get hate mail, I just don't wanna get fan mail."
Lifetime has picked up "Any Day Now" for a fourth season, even while inexplicably yanking it from the air periodically. That includes replacing it early in the February ratings sweeps with its sexier, fleshier, infinitely dumber new female cop series, "The Division."
No one on TV is doing better work than Potts, meanwhile. And if sages of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences don't grant previously overlooked "Any Day Now" the Emmy attention it deserves this year, they'll have some explaining to do.
Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.