The Problem With Black T.V.
If you want to know just how bad television can be, check out Homeboys in Outer Space.Homeboys, which is shown on UPN, is the kind of television situation comedy that makes you wonder what the pitch meeting was like: "Let's send two funny black guys into outer space. It'll be like Star Trek meets Sanford and Son."The show is more like Star Trek meets Amos 'n' Andy.Homeboys in Outer Space stars Darryl Bell as Morris Clay and Flex as Ty Walker -- a pair of ne'er do well, new-jack haulers of cargo in the twenty-third century. While Captains Kirk and Picard had the Enterprise and the Doctor had the TARDIS, our boys trek around the galaxy in the Hoopty, a twenty-third-century cross between low-rider and eighteen-wheeler.Accompanying the homies in their wacky outer-space adventures is Loquatia (Rhonda Bennett), the ship's on board computer. "This tart-tongued maven of the mainframe resents that she's confined to the console, shown only as a talking head on a monitor installed in the Hoopty';s instrument panel," says a synopsis I read on UPN's web site. "In perpetual overdrive, she enjoys tormenting Ty with her caustic remarks and teasing Morris with her cybernetic feminine wiles."Of course Loquatia resents being confined to the console. Given the producers' limited imaginations, Loquatia should do a Hal and deep-six these knuckleheads, then head off to join the Federation. At least in Picard's interpretation of the twenty-third century, women can actually captain ships (see Janeway on the Voyager).Loquatia almost escaped once, when she was offered a chance to become a music-video star. In her absence, Ty Walker and Morris Clay install a new computer, also with a female persona, which promptly accuses the two of sexual harassment. A computer lawyer, who looks and acts like Johnnie Cochran, file a lawsuit against the homies. Loquatia comes back and saves the day. All is well.Another episode has Morris and Ty delivering human cargo --cryogenized bodies from the late 1990s -- to a sinister scientist who wants to sell body parts. But Morris and Ty don't know this until Morris realizes that his great, great, great, great, great grandmother is one of the frozen few and thaws her. Ty, who is a habitually horny but lovable firstmate, hits on Morris's newly young granny big-time. After some totally inane scenes that hark back to late 1970s television, Morris is able to send his grandmother back to the nineties.The Hubbell telescope has led scientists to believe that the size of the known universe has been grossly underestimated. There are billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and millions of galaxies out there. Yet the best Hollywood can do for blacks is two 1990s b-boys in orbit. The writing lacks the depth of Sam Delaney and the wit of Douglas Adams. Homeboys in Outer Space is even more visually inept than a Doctor Who episode, although what it lacks in special effects Doctor Who makes up for in charm."When people look back at this decade, the 1990s, they will write that this was the decade of black mediocrity in the arts," says cultural critic and poet Kevin Powell. "Television, especially, but film and even literature, it's all pretty bad out there. Homeboys in Outer Space is just part of what's wrong.""It's quite easy to see how it got on television," says Ken Perkins, television critic with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "The name itself is attractive to the demographic of the audience. But it's a very unfunny show."Ironically, the nineties was supposed to showcase a renaissance in black entertainment. Networks and advertisers have realized that the black community is hungry for programming that reflects its image. But the shows they come up with are pathetic.Many shows featuring black characters are not even creatively controlled by African Americans. Last season, Cleghorne! a canceled WB sitcom featuring comedian Ellen Cleghorne, had one black writer among eight. Often the producers of a Fox program called The Show, featuring a black star, would call over to Cleghorne! and ask for anecdotes. See, black people are often hired as writers just to make sure the jive is right.The network executives are unwilling to push past common themes and characters when it comes to blacks and other ethnic minorities. "In the new offerings, so far, there's a lot of head-twitching, whipping around of necks, high-pitched defiant tones," wrote A.J. Jacobs in Entertainment Weekly last June. "When the story line goes beyond dating, there is still a lot of bumbling about decision-making. And frequently the targets of put-downs are the educated and seemingly middle-class characters, who use longer words and sentences and might hesitate a minute before rushing into a situation."While Fresh Prince of Bel Air -- a story about a Philly kid (Will Smith) who moves in with his rich uncle, aunt, and cousin in Bel-Air -- was a truly funny comedy, all too often the butt of jokes was Carlton, a dweeby oreo who used big words. Carlton's lack of street smarts and street language made him ridiculous on the show. Big words and preppy clothing are not black, at least by television standards.Martin, as well, seems to revel in the down-wit-it, anti-intelligent, self-absorbed street style of its main character, played by Martin Lawrence. He has range, but is rarely given the chance to do anything but be a clown. Martin shares the anti-feminism of Archie Bunker and is the antithesis of the funny but intelligent Heathcliff Huxtable.Blacks are increasingly pigeonholed in simpleminded comedies. At a time when the big four -- NBC, CBS, ABC, AND Fox -- have only a handful of shows centered around blacks, UPN and WB have anchored their programming with comedies featuring African Americans. Of the twenty-one shows the two networks pushed this past fall, eleven were comedies."We have to counterprogram, so we went after [black] talent in a big way," Mike Sullivan, UPN Entertainment's president, told Entertainment Weekly last summer. "Comedies have a great track record. Success dictates where you go."Sullivan's boss, Lucie Salhany, UPN's president and chief executive officer, agreed."We wanted the funniest comedies we could get," she told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Comedy is comedy. And people want to laugh."Comedies are the engines that drive the network train. Dramas centered around black families fail, and usually fail quickly.An example is Under One Roof. The show, featuring James Earl Jones and Joe Morton, lasted only a few weeks before it was unceremoniously canceled. The show was a critical success, but an embarrassing bust in the ratings.Several factors killed it, including a horrible Saturday-evening time slot. The show's producer, Thomas Carter, recently said that networks bury the shows they feel won't go anywhere. This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy."It's far more deep-seated than having a bad time slot," says Ken Perkins. "There is nothing more difficult than trying to get a serious black drama on television. There are some unwritten rules about doing it. First, whites will not watch shows on the black condition. Second, middle-class blacks are not interested in watching shows on the black condition."Because Under One Roof appealed to neither of these groups, the network decided not to risk a long run. "Under One Roof wasn't on long enough to build an audience," says Perkins. "Hollywood likes shows that are safe and doesn't like concepts that haven't been proven."But, as Perkins points out, Hollywood's preoccupation with safety leads audiences to expect limited kinds of TV. "I really do believe that black audiences have been conditioned," he says. "If you've been raised on comedies, you develop a taste only for comedies."The networks have been less than eager to find new black dramas. Several attempts have been made lately, but none were successful. Spike Lee, the most successful black director in mainstream cinema history, had a development deal with CBS, but the show was not picked up.UPN is apparently working on a black-oriented drama, although its premise is just as predictable as are UPN's comedies: It will center around high-school basketball.The larger networks, when questioned, have been vague about getting more blacks on TV more often. Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, has said that he is committed to diversity and is looking for ways to improve the color imbalance on the network.Leslie Moonves, head of programming for CBS, which has the most prominent new black series on television in Cosby, told the Miami Herald that blacks are playing major roles on shows throughout the network."As opposed to going specifically for all-black shows, or all-white shows, we've mixed them up a bit," she said.While African Americans make up 12 percent of the total population, black viewers watch 50 percent more television than any other group.And black viewers watch the shows that feature black characters. "People are just glad to see black people on television," says Pat Tobin, a public-relations executive in Los Angeles who has worked with a number of African American entertainers. "You want to watch and see black people. I know child who goes to a prestigious school where he is the only African American. He doesn't see his image anywhere. So, he watches the television shows."When Fox started to challenge the big three networks in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was with shows that centered on African Americans (Martin), had African Americans in prominent roles (21 Jump Street), or appealed to black viewers (Married with Children). This strategy was a success for Fox, because at one time the network was attracting 38 percent of black viewers.UPN and WB have borrowed that strategy, and it's beginning to pay off. WB's The Wayans Brothers, for example, has 11.7 percent of black households, although it only captures 2.7 percent of all households."This heavy solicitation of the African American viewer is just one signal of the growing importance of the market, especially its younger adults," says Jacqueline Trescott of The Washington Post, in a review of blacks on television this season. "That is the good news -- the recognition of the black consumer. Also, the series are showcases for talented performers who rarely have such consistent high-profile exposure."While there is talk about the homogeneity of television casting, there is a serious difference between what white families will watch, and what black families view. This is the reason why color television looks black and white when it comes to casting.The top shows at the end of the 1995 season in white household (in descending order) were Frasier, Coach, Monday Night Football, NYPD Blue, The Single Guy, Caroline in the City, Friends, Seinfeld, and E.R.Among black households, the story was drastically different. New York Undercover was number one, followed by Living Single, In the House (dropped by NBC, and picked up by UPN), The Crew (canceled by Fox), Fresh Prince of Bel Air (canceled by NBC after several successful seasons), Martin, Family Matters, Monday Night Football, NBC Monday Night at the Movies, and The Preston Episodes (Fox canceled), which starred David Allen Greer as a journalist.Two shows that don't show up in either list, but which are favorites for both black and white audiences are Married with Children and The Simpsons, both on Fox. One reason these shows are popular with black audiences may be that looking at white folks having a difficult time of it is funny -- especially when Fox has so many rich, spoiled whiners from hell on such shows as Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.But some African Americans who watch both shows identify with the blue-collar, oppressed, repressed lives of Homer Simpson and Al Bundy. Homer has the loving respect of his family, which he needs in order to get through a day of working for the tyrant boss of a nuclear power plant. Likewise, Al, although off-the-wall with his slobbishness and sexism, slaves away as a show salesman at a mall, lives in a small house, and suffers through his wife's and his children's insults.For the black community, the lack of artistic merit on television is especially damaging because television shows such as Homeboys in Outer Space, Martin (a survivor on Fox), and The Wayans Brothers (a hit on WB) have become the iconography, at least for some whites, of the black community.A survey published in Journalism Quarterly in the early 1980s found that in a test group of 316 white fourth, sixth, and eighth graders in California and Michigan, 60 percent believed that blacks on television talked like real black people, and 56 percent believed that black teenagers on television were realistic. Just under half of the test subjects believed that the portrayals of black men and women on television were accurate.Most characters were in minor roles and less prestigious jobs (the kindly janitor, the nice school nurse, the friendly doorman), so these children believed in portrayals of African Americans as friendly but subservient."Although finding no direct stimulus-response relationship between the way television portrayed blacks and how real blacks were perceived by the children, the researchers found that the selective perception of the young viewers could interpret the televisions programming to reinforce existing racial attitudes," wrote Clint C. Wilson II and Felix Gutierrez in their 1995 book, Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media."There is just no balance, as long it is like that the shows Hollywood produces will be picked apart," says Perkins. "The shows will always have these broad, over-the-top characters. We need to be portrayed from A to Z. We need sophisticated sitcoms, like Seinfeld and Frasier, good dramas, and shows like Martin as well."One of the few shows that does a good job of portraying black life, albeit in a humorous light, is The Parent 'Hood. No wonder. Robert Townsend, the star, co-creator, and co-executive producer of The Parent 'Hood, made his mark with his film Hollywood Shuffle, the best--and funniest--postmodern deconstruction of Hollywood and race ever produced.Townsend plays Robert Patterson, a communications professor at NYU, who, along with his wife Jerri (Suzanne Douglas), a law student, raises a family of four kids in New York.Townsend keeps up with his deconstruction of Hollywood and blacks in the episode, "I'm Otay, You're Otay." His youngest son, eight-year-old Nicholas, decides to be Buckwheat as his class project for Black History Month.The family is miffed and embarrassed. Robert explains to his son -- via a brief montage on a mythical black comedy from the 1930s called Paintin' Fools, featuring himself and his best friend Wendell (Faizon Love) -- that characters like Buckwheat are looked at with disgust. Nicholas understands, but still decides to go to the school function as Buckwheat. After the other schoolchildren portray the usual heroes of the black community (including some white kids acting the roles of black heroes), Nicholas hits the stage as Buckwheat, bad grammar, bad hair, tragic fashion sense, and all. Shock, embarrassment, shame. But Nicholas takes off his wig and launches into a quick and meaningful discussion of who these early black film stars were and why they acted the way they did. Standing ovation, smiles, and even I was moved.But the irony is that while Nicholas and Robert discussed how Hollywood has moved past the days of Steppin' Fetchit, I can think only that we have progressed to Homeboys in Outer Space.