Equal Opportunism

UPN’s new black sitcoms.

Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. Blacks asked for greater inclusion on television, and that’s just what we’ve been given. God help us.

Beginning this Monday and Tuesday, blacks will own a cul-de-sac on the airwaves for two consecutive nights. In an effort to build a viewership with a faithful black core, United Paramount Network will air six black sitcoms (four of them new) back-to-back. This is going the Democratic Party one better: The people at UPN are not just relying on our vote; they’re taking our preferences into account.

It’s the smart thing to do: Blacks have the dubious distinction of watching more TV and being more loyal viewers than any other group. As Doug Alligood of the New York ad agency BBDO told the Wall Street Journal recently, “Fox set a precedent: If you put on a show with a predominantly black cast, you are almost guaranteed a 20-plus black rating” (about 2.1 million households).

Notice the key ingredient of the magic formula: a black cast. Blacks won’t watch shows with only one black, no matter how substantive the role. The black ratings on otherwise leading shows, such as Law and Order and TouchedbyanAngel, range from 32nd to 128th. On the other hand, non-blacks will not watch black shows. Blacks’ No. 1 show, NewYorkUndercover, ranks 122nd among whites and 76th overall. Not one black show makes the non-black top 20. Only MondayNightFootball makes the case for cultural integration by residing on everyone’s top-20 list (last for blacks, first everywhere else).

Clearly, producers have to choose among their viewers, and it’s to UPN’s credit that it has chosen blacks. But that’s about all the credit I’m willing to give the network. For all its corporate commitment–going so far as to recruit most of the black veterans of TV comedy, including Sherman Hemsley (George from TheJeffersons), Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo from TheCosbyShow), James Avery (Phillip from The FreshPrinceofBelAir), Robin Givens (HeadoftheClass)–UPN’s producers are apparently not willing to stick their necks out in any other way, such as writing anything new or original or even half-witted. Even they have all but admitted the shows are dreck. Two weeks before their season premieres, the network announced that it was revamping and reshooting the shows, and that reviewers would not be allowed to view the new tapes. UPN probably hoped to keep people like me from spreading the word.

W >ell, tough. I’m here to tell you that this is comedy for the comatose.

The only show with even a semblance of freshness and life is Sparks (Monday nights), which is also the only one that wasn’t reshot. The premise here is sibling rivalry: Maxey is the earthy free spirit and Greg, the uptight anal retentive. Alonzo (Avery) is their father. They’re law partners in a slightly sleazy inner-city law firm. It takes Greg three years to pick their new associate (Givens), and Maxey three seconds to try to exchange bodily fluids with her. What saves Sparks is Miguel A. Nunez Jr.’s Maxey. He brings a devilish insouciance to his role that sets it alight and apart from your everyday TV ambulance-chaser and Lothario. It’s a kind of joy, I think. Nunez both enjoys and thrives on Maxey’s Barnumesque shamelessness, and so do we.

The only value in the rest of these shows lies in the portrayal of the schizophrenic socioeconomic nature and social dislocation of modern black families: Many are torn, half their members in, half their members out, of the middle class. We strain to juggle our competing class loyalties and, as these shows reflect, it is our speech that signals this most consistently–we deliver the King’s English one moment, fractured verbs the next. In Goode Behavior (also airing Monday nights), The Jeffersons’ own Hemsley plays a rascally paroled con artist who is required to live with the son he abandoned and repeatedly conned. Hemsley delivers his lines as if he’d memorized them phonetically. His son, Franklin, is equally subtle: We know he’s an uptight bourgeois because he speaks clunkily in the passive voice. When Hemsley knocks his boss’ wife down in a bit of unbelievable, annoying slapstick, Franklin apologizes for his father’s having “caused you wife to take a seat in the cobbler.”

In Malcolm & Eddie (Mondays), even Malcolm-Jamal Warner seems bored by the dusty lines he aims at us like hernia-exam coughs. He’s an aspiring sportscaster forced to share a place with his mother’s best friend’s son, a Sanfordesque tow-truck driver. Eddie Griffin, the one intended to put the “odd” into the couple, obviously attended The Martin Lawrence School of Comedy. Lots of energy here, but no comedy.

Which brings us to the worst TV show ever to waste electricity: HomeboysinOuterSpace (Tuesdays). It’s about two 23rd-century schmoes who cruise space in a futuristic “hoopty” (hip-hop slang for a beat-up old car of which one is inordinately fond). The minstrel-show title tells you everything you need to know about Homeboys, except, perhaps, that its production values make it look like something dreamed up in a high-school TV class. Their on-board computer is a bug-eyed fly girl–with huge earrings and a neck in constant swivel mode–called Loquatia Jones (“Jemima” must have been trademarked). The review materials describe her as “sassy,” an adjective required by natural law to be applied only to black women. Deciding on the spelling of “hoopty” must have taken more time than anything else, given what makes it onto the screen.

Well, we asked for it and we got it. Now all of America can anesthetize itself with endless hours of black people reduced to TV paper dolls revisiting the same tired situations again and again. Just like the white sitcoms. Equality at last.

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