Black-themed series come to a crossroads
Life AT Tattaglia High School in Brooklyn can be tough. Homework, heartbreak and, on this day, a red-haired bully is on the loose, determined to torment unsuspecting nerds.
Amid the hallway chaos of the class change, though, stands a grown-up wearing a white head scarf and gym shorts, with a valuable lesson to impart to the nerds -- how to take a bully’s punch. The idea is to heighten the laughs for a scene being filmed on the set of “Everybody Hates Chris,” the nostalgic Chris Rock-inspired sitcom about a Brooklyn teenager growing up in the 1980s.
The adult is Ali LeRoi, who created the CW series with Rock and coaches the young actors on how best to move through the scene -- a comically tense encounter involving young Chris (Tyler James Williams), his best friend Greg (Vincent Martella) and Joey the bully (Travis Flory).
LeRoi is a TV rarity, a show runner guiding one of the few remaining series on network television dealing with African Americans. This, depending on who you talk to, is a woeful or an encouraging development.
Though Chris and his friends may still be experiencing growing pains, the series -- currently filming its fourth season for airing this fall, in a move to Friday nights from Sundays -- is not, according to LeRoi. (The season finale airs at 8 tonight.)
“If we were a basketball team, we would be in the playoffs,” said LeRoi, sitting in his office beneath a huge French poster from Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” a satire about African American comedies. “We know how to shoot this show, all the dynamics are beginning to jell, even our interactions with network executives are going better.”
LeRoi speaks like a seasoned veteran as he acknowledges that “Everybody Hates Chris” has taken its share of punches since its 2005 debut. Once trumpeted as a breakout hit, the show has struggled through slipping ratings, marketing woes and network upheaval.
Moreover, “Everybody Hates Chris” is a show with a predominantly African American cast in an era when black-themed series appear to be at a crossroads. This season’s departure of the CW’s long-running “Girlfriends” leaves only two network shows in prime time -- both struggling on the CW --that revolve around black casts: “Everybody Hates Chris” and the “Girlfriends” spinoff “The Game.”
Meanwhile, on the cable side, the numbers are only slightly better. There’s ABC Family’s “Lincoln Heights,” a one-hour drama about a black family, and TBS’ “Tyler Perry’s '’,” a highly rated sitcom. And last month, MyNetwork TV launched “Under One Roof,” a comedy starring rapper Flavor Flav that was met with a chorus of negative reviews.
The issue of fewer African American stars and shows has provoked pointed concern from minority groups. In particular, Vic Bulluck, president of the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP, decries the further shrinking of television’s historically limited racial diversity.
“We’re very concerned about and disappointed at the lack of representation,” said Bulluck. “It’s something that we’ve been discussing with all the networks for a while, ever since the ‘Bernie Mac’ show left Fox. With ‘Girlfriends’ now leaving, the situation becomes a lot more urgent. The situation as it stands now is unacceptable.”
However, lower numbers of primarily black shows may also signal something completely different -- a growing dissolution of the medium’s color line. Instead of being ignored, blacks may have merely become more deeply integrated and accepted into mainstream culture, thus eliminating the need for segregated series.
“Given the changes in society and having a serious African American candidate running for president who has white financial and emotional support indicates that the time for ‘black shows’ has passed,” said writer and comedian Franklyn Ajaye, who has worked on shows such as “In Living Color.”
The CULTURAL shift, if true, could translate into edgier, more multidimensional comedies for African Americans -- something akin to “Frasier,” “Sex and the City” or “Seinfeld.” (“Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer is an executive producer of “Girlfriends.”)
“Everybody Hates Chris” fits perfectly in that niche and transcends the category of the traditional black show, maintains LeRoi. The show functions on several different levels -- as a family sitcom, as a nostalgic examination of adolescence in the ‘80s, and as a platform for the dry, observational humor of Rock, who narrates the series.
“From our perspective, this was never about being a black show,” says LeRoi. “The interests of Chris and I are broad and eclectic. The foundation is reflective of our influences, Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith. It’s broad and global. It’s about family, a slice of life.”
“It’s hard for that kind of show to capture as large an audience as we would like,” said Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment for the CW. “It’s a period piece, it’s set in a specific neighborhood, and it’s about an African American family. People have to give it a chance to see how relatable it is.”
The show’s debut on the then-UPN network made headlines in September 2005 when it outperformed the highly touted “Friends” spinoff “Joey” on NBC’s powerhouse Thursday night. It was the fledgling network’s highest rating ever for a sitcom, and represented a major triumph for the UPN over then-mighty NBC, which staked its “Must-See TV” flag on one of its strongest nights.
The program seemed destined to become a crossover hit and lift UPN into contender status. But it never happened. Part of the trouble was turbulence within the television industry.
Around this time, UPN merged with the WB to become the CW, an at-times-bumpy transition that left former UPN shows, particularly its African American-based comedies, struggling to regain their audience. Meanwhile, the show’s scheduling didn’t help either, bouncing from Thursdays to Mondays to Sundays and in an early-evening time slot.
But the series received a boost in March when Nick at Nite bought the cable-TV rights to reruns and announced it would start airing “Chris” episodes in January. And LeRoi points out that “Everybody Hates Chris” has proven to be a hit in international markets, an indication that black shows can strike universal themes and find widespread acceptance.
Added Terry Crews, who plays Julian Rock, young Chris’ father on the show: “Everybody thinks that ‘Gilligan’s Island’ was a Top 10 show when it was on the air. But it wasn’t. It was only after it was in syndication that people caught on. That’s the way it’s going to be with our show.”
But for now, there seems to be little appetite on television for African American-themed shows. Part of the reason is the mechanism for discovering black talent has largely disappeared.
In the 1990s, stand-up shows such as “Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam” and “Comic View” served as launch pads for D.L. Hughley, Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence and other comics. Shows developed around them during a time when then-fledgling networks such as Fox, the WB and UPN wanted to attract minority audiences that were being underserved.
“The cream rose to the top,” LeRoi said. “Now those shows are old news. There’s no real pool of talent of reputable names to build shows around.”
The most successful African American show currently is “Tyler Perry’s ‘House of Payne,’ ” which debuted on TBS last year and has become the top-rated comedy in the history of ad-supported cable television. Its continued success may open doors for others on cable.
“The fact that other shows with black casts are going away puts a bigger spotlight on us,” said Ken Schwab, senior vice president of programming for TBS. “It’s been great for TBS to bring in an audience that we had not been attracting in prime time.”
Though it falls short of “House of Payne” in viewership, LeRoi feels his show will ultimately stand the test of time.
“In the long run, this show will endure,” he said. “We’re not going away.”