Finally, a realistic black family on TV


TRY AS IT MIGHT, over its more than 40-year history, television has had the toughest time getting together a situation comedy that portrays a black family in a manner that isn't cliched or cartoonish.

From "Amos and Andy" in the early 1950s to the current "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," the television landscape has been littered with hackneyed plots and buffoon-like characters that reduce the black family to a weak caricature.

Even when the intentions are at their best, as with "The Cosby Show," the results have been unrealistic.

That is, until this year's premiere of "Roc," Fox's Baltimore-based sitcom that tells the story of a thrifty garbage collector, his nurse wife, his musician brother and their curmudgeon father. The show doesn't offend sensibilities in pursuit of laughs.

"Roc," which in a rare TV event will be performed live Sunday night, succeeds where other shows have failed because the blackness of its characters is a component of the show, not the controlling factor.

That is to say that Roc Emerson, his wife Eleanor, younger brother Joey, and the more-than-slightly prejudiced father Andrew are fleshed out, fully developed characters who just happen to be black and are funny, warm and touching as a condition of their humanity, not because of their race.

These are folks that you wouldn't mind living next to or inviting over socially.

To be sure, Roc, as portrayed by Baltimore native Charles S. Dutton, comes across as a bit too earnest at times, but he has enough of a playful side to make him a joy to know.

Ella Joyce, as Roc's wife, is the calming influence who, in traditional sitcom style, keeps the family centered, but she also is allowed to have her share of fun.

As with nearly every other sitcom, there are moments when "Roc" falls flat, and those moments center around brother Joey, played by Rocky Carroll, and Andrew, portrayed by Carl Gordon.

"Roc" would be "Cheers" perfect if Joey were something more than the shiftless, unemployed brother out to hustle and if Andrew weren't so obviously prejudiced against whites.

But Carroll and Gordon are talented enough actors to give their characters nuance and shadings that keep them believable.

"Roc," thankfully, has not become a parody of itself, a failure that has often been the fate of black-oriented sitcoms that collapse into clownishness to achieve a mass audience.

Consider two of the more popular black family sitcoms, "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons," both products of Norman Lear and descendants of the honored "All in the Family."

Both shows attempted to portray the struggles of blacks on differing socioeconomic levels to succeed and earn respect.

On one level, both worked and achieved popular success. But they ultimately failed because their popularity came on the strength of two hideously caricatured characters, "Good Times" J.J. Evans and cleaning store mogul George Jefferson.

Both J.J. and George were loud, obnoxious, overbearing men whose existence played on offensive stereotypes.

J.J. had no redeeming qualities beside an oafish smile, and his trademark utterance "Dyno-mite" became the albatross that hung around the show's neck, as everyone stood waiting for the moment when he would deliver the line to raucous applause.

George Jefferson was a slightly more acceptable character, as his devotion to his wife, Louise, and his heartfelt desire to make his son Lionel's life better were admirable.

But his boorishness and disrespect of whites made him far less likable than, say, Andrew Emerson, who is no less devoted to his family but is much more tolerant of opposing viewpoints.

Unfortunately, "The Cosby Show," Bill Cosby's well-meaning attempt at presenting an upper-middle class black family, also fails under the weight of its self-righteousness, though it is much closer to the truth than either "Good Times" or "The Jeffersons."

Not surprising is the experience of the cast of "Roc." All have been successful on Broadway. Their dedication to their craft is evident in every episode, and nearly every element of their performance, even Dutton's often blustering portrayal of Roc, is deftly understated.

The quality of "Roc," which is drawing a bigger audience than the show's predecessor "Get a Life," extends upward as the show's executive producer is Stan Daniels, who has collaborated on such honored programs as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Taxi."

"Roc" gives America a great chance to see black people as realistically portrayed as they ever have been on television.

It's about time.

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