'Roc' breaks past indifference

Charles S. Dutton says he doesn't know if tonight's "Roc" will be the last original episode of the sitcom about the hard-working garbage man from Baltimore. But if it is, Dutton says he'll take consolation in the fact that "Roc" had a social conscience right to the end. And, because of that, Dutton believes the show made a difference during its three-year run on Fox.

"I was reluctant to do television in the beginning. But, when I agreed to do it, it was with the full understanding that I could do a show based on a foundation of reality -- a show that basically was a mixture of comedy and drama, that dealt with real issues," Dutton said in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles last week.


"In criticism of Fox, it's been a struggle, with obstacles and hurdles galore. They wanted a show that was more clownish and nonsensical. "But, in praise of Fox, as difficult as it's been, I've been able to do the kind of episodes I want to do. And I think this final episode is one of our best."

Tonight's season finale is a follow-up to a critically acclaimed episode that aired in January, titled "Terence Got His Gun." In the January episode, a neighborhood boy was killed on the front stoop of the Emersons' rowhouse in a drive-by shooting.


The show ended with Dutton directly asking young African-American viewers to stop the killing. Dutton says the episode was suggested by the real-life shooting of Tauris Johnson in Baltimore.

Tonight, Terence's mother confronts the remorseless 15-year-old, Damien, who murdered her son. And Andre, the drug dealer, pays Damien a visit and gives him a "Scared Straight" speech about what he can expect when he leaves the Baltimore City jail and arrives at the penitentiary. As Andre, Clifton Powell delivers the performance of the year by a supporting actor in that scene.

And that's only half of tonight's "Roc." The other half deals with AIDS. An 8-year-old girl infected with HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, comes to visit the Emersons. Her story will break your heart.

It might also make you mad that there doesn't seem to be a place on network TV this year for this kind of quality, socially relevant, sitcom material.

The future of "Roc" doesn't look good. Starting today with ABC, the networks will announce their fall schedules during the next two weeks.

While new episodes of many shows, such as "Homicide" on NBC, have already been ordered, Dutton has heard nothing from Fox about the fate of "Roc."

While that's not good, it doesn't mean that "Roc" is definitely dead. Dutton says "Roc" has been treated the same way the last two years, not knowing whether it would be renewed until Fox announced its fall schedule the last week of May.

In fact, a number of newspapers and magazines reported last May that "Roc" would not be back only to report the renewal of the series a few days later.


"The disheartening thing is that during the last three seasons, I believe we have been the only nonjuvenile show on Fox. And, yet, we've never been given the respect to simply know sooner, rather than later, whether we would be coming back," Dutton says.

"What happens, when they let you know at the last minute, is that you have to scurry to get a staff together. You're faced with -- and this is a hard word -- scraping the bottom of the barrel, because many of the good writers have signed on with other shows that knew in March and April that they were coming back.

"Still, I have to say that I think we've managed to make episodes that respected our audience and mattered to them."

People like Dutton, who make TV shows, can say their work made a difference. And critics, like me, can tell you shows like "Roc" made a difference. But the real evidence for such claims comes from the viewers themselves.

Earlier this year, I asked Dutton if he would share some of the letters he received from Baltimore viewers in response to "Terence Got His Gun." He agreed, with the stipulation that we not print the names of the letter-writers. I've added punctuation and corrected spellings in some cases, but even without such editing, the messages were clear:

"Dear Roc:


"I came home, and my girl was crying. She said she saw your show and thought about me. And then, I saw the end of it.

"So, we sat down and talked about me and my gun. And I have tell you, I cried. And then, I went out and got rid of it.

"So, I want to maybe thank you from me and my kids."

Another letter says, in part:

"Dear Mr. Dutton:

"I have seen the episode of 'Roc' that you have done on kids and violence that has plagued our country. You see, I have recently lost a cousin to violence.


"He was only 14 years old and was shot in the back coming home from a Halloween party. He was never in a gang or associated with one. . . .

"I appreciate that you have brought this type of violence out, because every time you hear about someone getting shot, it is a young, black teenager about 17 on down. And it is a shame that babies can get ahold of a gun and, without any feelings, shoot another person down.

"I am proud to know that there is someone in Hollywood who recognizes this problem and is willing to bring it to light. Thank you."


And, finally, this:

"Dear Mr. Charles S. Dutton:


"I'm in a gang . . . I haven't killed anyone. . . . But I've really hurt a lot of people violently in my trails. I didn't care about them -- they were just in the way.

"Because of your show, I now realize that I also hurt the families of the victims. The show got me thinking, 'What if this happened to my family?'

"When I went upstairs to talk to the rest of the family after the show went off, everyone was in tears. At that point, I vowed to change my lifestyle. . . .

"It's rough being black in Baltimore, but, with the help of the Lord, I'll make it. Wish me luck! If you get a chance, could you write me back?"

If you get a chance, could you watch "Roc" tonight at 8:30 on WBFF (Channel 45)?