Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Tuesday, June 20, 2000

color television

The age of the minority has arrived! Fear us!

More prosaically, the summer season has arrived, and with it, two new shows with predominantly minority casts and other shows with minority leads. And a holdover from last season will be showing repeats in an effort to gain a bit more audience share. (After all, if you didn't watch it the first time, you might catch it the second time, right? right? ... oh, well.)

To take the latter show first ... CBS renewed "City of Angels", the Bochco drama that takes place in an inner-city Los Angeles hospital with a predominantly black cast. However, renewal could hardly be said to be a ringing endorsement; CBS essentially said that had the show not had a minority cast, and had they not been getting pummeled regularly by the NAACP over the fact that they were the worst of the nets regarding minority casting, "City of Angels" would not have survived. Following this enthusiastic announcement, Paris Barclay, one of the show's creators--it was his idea in the first place, backed by Bochco's reputation--left due to creative differences. (The impression is that he was "encouraged" to leave.) In other words, "City of Angels" is pretty much the sickman of CBS, which is really saying something.

The difficulty is that the show ... really wants to have something to say and hasn't figured out quite what it is or how to do it. Essentially, it's trying to be "St Elsewhere of Los Angeles", but they haven't figured out how to structure the show so that this approach will work without looking like that's what they're trying to do. They also want to try to approach specifically minority concerns in a way that doesn't alienate It spent its entire first season putting at least one moral lesson per segment (in other words, five per episode), and nobody likes to be preached at. It also doesn't seem to be catching the imagination of minorities--it's not one of the top five shows among blacks--and a show with a minority cast that can't catch a minority audience is in deep trouble. It's wasting Viveca A Fox and Blair Underwood (although Michael Warren is a perfectly delicious Evil Administrator, if somewhat one-note ... and, of course, the problem is that in comedies or more broadly drawn shows, one-note villains can be quite a lot of fun, but in a more serious show, they need to be more ... subtle.)

Showtime, almost all by itself, seems to be resurrecting minority shows and minority leads and all sorts of controversial things.

One of those things is "Resurrection Blvd", the first regular series to have a principally Hispanic cast in television history. (Be warned; Showtime has put their site through yet another redesign and they are now sincere believers in Shockwave/Flash and things that make noise.) Unfortunately, I have to reserve judgement on it. I tried to watch it, I really did, but it was full of thundering stereotypes and nearly as much moralistic fervor as "City of Angels", with far less cause. It's so intensely earnest that it's periodically rather offputting. After about 20 minutes, I just surrendered. It may be better (if harder to follow because it'll be tougher to tell who people are) after the first episode; we'll wait and see.

Showtime also heads into relatively rarely plumbed territory (rare recently, in any event) when the new season of "Rude Awakening" begins. Mario van Peebles enters the show, and his character will become one of Billie's (Sherilyn Fenn) love interests, along with the ever-present Dave. So you get not only a love triangle, but an interracial relationship. Given the show, it's likely that those aspects will be touched and discussed. Given that particular show, it's also likely that someone will put everything in the most offensive terms possible--the sort of thing that almost everyone thinks, but nobody would ever say, because you just don't do that. On this show, everyone does.

It will be interesting to see how they handle it. Given that Marcus (Mario) is supposed to be one of Dave's old friends, it's quite likely that the race issue will only come out to play on rare occasions, subsumed under the "You're screwing my friend!" issue and the "You need to stop drinking and doing drugs" issue and the "You need to get a job" issue. (Billie has LOTS of issues.)

And finally, there's Showeime's "Soul Food", based on the film of the same name. Of the three dramas reviewed, it's easily the best written and best acted. Unfortunately, you do pretty much have to forget the film if you want to take the show at face value. It's produced and written by the same people who did the film, which provides welcome continuity. However, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, in recasting for the series, the producers decided to go with a much younger cast; it feels about ten years younger almost across the board and they also seem to have reduced the age difference between the sisters, as well. It makes a bit of a difference in the flavor of the series--these characters have less history with each other. Nonetheless, this is a good solid cast, and the episodes should get a bit better as the series moves on and the producers and writers feel less urgency to have each character involved in almost every scene; the constant presence of almost every cast member confused almost as much as it clarified. The one change they should make, as soon as possible, is to soften Teri (Nicole Ari Parker), the sister originally played by Vanessa L Williams. As it stands, whenever she's around her family, every word out of her mouth is edged and barbed until the viewer wants to call her a very naughty word indeed. It may be the producer's goal, perhaps, but it runs the risk of turning her into a caricature instead of a character.

It's very interesting to look at the differences between the three cable dramas and even HBO's Oz and something like "City of Angels." As the directors of programming at both HBO and Showtime have said, being pay cable services allows them the unusual luxury of narrowcasting--that is, aiming specific shows at specific audiences knowing full well that the bulk of their audience may simply stay away in droves. That's why you see all of the shows that actually deal with race as in issue on the pay cable services. That's why "More Tales of the City", "Common Ground" and the forthcoming "Queer as Folk" came out of Showtime, and "Dragtime" from HBO, where they have the luxury of creating shows that will appeal primarily to the relatively small gay audience.

One of the struggles that "City of Angels" has on CBS is that, by its very nature--a show about an inner city hospital with primarity minority patients and staff--race would normally be an ever present issue. It would not necessarily be in every conversation, but the topic would always be around somewhere. However, since networks are broadcasters--that is, their programs must appeal to as wide an audience as possible to draw ratings and advertiser dollars--that puts them in the awkward position. To be realistic, race should be an issue all the time; to attract viewers and dollars, they need to keep it off the table as much as possible. As long as "City of Angels" tries to walk this line, it will continue to fail. Minorities will stay away because it's not realistic; both minorities and everyone else will stay away becaus it's just not that good.

Compare "City of Angels" and "ER". ER can succeed because, in many ways, it simply shows things the way they have always been. In the composition of its staff, it's a mostly realistic depiction of Cook County Hospital, on which the show is modeled (mostly, but not completely, white administrative staff and physicians, and mostly, but not completely, minority support staff--orderlies, nurses, etc). By showing things the way they always have been, that enables ER to take race off the table, even though, as an inner city hospital, it would never ever be far away. Interestingly, presenting the dynamics this way also allows ER to play with the topic a little, every now and again, dancing in to have one character mugged by and subsequently afraid of black men, dancing away when he eventually realizes what he's doing and that it's just not right, restoring the status quo of unspoken truce. By the same token, "City of Angels" struggles because it's showing a different side, but trying to maintain the same dynamics; it simply doesn't work.

Ultimately, one good thing about the increasing factioning of the broadcast audience is that it may make broadcasters less reluctant to try risky or different types of shows. It may be a while before that day really arrives, though, as they try desperately to hang onto the audience they have. And, unfortunately, "How to be a millionaire" and "Survivor" have shown the networks that if they put up something people find compelling, they'll come back to TV. Unfortunately, they're relatively low risk, brain dead shows. So it may be some time.

Posted by iain at 10:35 PM in category