LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles -- There's a streetwise, undercover cop hip-hopping his way through the New York drug scene. There's a crime-fighting, paraplegic superhero called "M.A.N.T.I.S."
There's a middle-class video store owner trying to raise three sons after the death of his wife. There's a young man who dresses like a woman to fool a social worker so that he can keep his brothers and sisters from being put up for adoption after their parents die.
These are some of the new African-American characters of the coming prime-time network TV season. It's not a complete list -- it's more of sneak peek at the new black characters on Fox and ABC, the networks that have had the greatest number of black characters in recent years and have already showcased their fall lineups for critics here.
The Fox lineup of African-American characters is of particular interest. The network has become a focus of controversy over its depiction of blacks since the cancellation in May of "Roc" and "South Central," two of television's most socially conscious series.
Charles Dutton, the star of "Roc," says Fox went out of its way to kill his show because of its social conscience. Dutton further alleges that the networks will only allow blacks to play broad, cartoonish characters in simple-minded sitcoms that air early in the evening. He calls these "monkey" roles.
Dutton is not alone in such criticism. Two years ago, Bill Cosby went public with his analysis of black sitcom characters on network TV -- all networks. He likened them to demeaning types found in 19th-century minstrel shows.
Is it going to be better next season for black characters on television? Will it be worse or about the same?
The answer is that it's not that easy when it comes to race and television. Attempting such superficial, better-or-worse analyses would only add confusion.
Making sense of TV portrayals, and countering their potential to type negatively entire ethnic groups, must start with an understanding -- that one person's notion of a negative stereotype can be another person's idea of a well-rounded and progressive characterization.
Dutton's criticism is playing a key role in the reception here of new fall shows featuring African-American characters. His words have put the depiction of blacks on TV back on the A-list of issues, with network executives and stars being forced to respond to the charges. The complexity of the issue is seen in some of those responses.
"There's been a resistance [by the TV industry] to any minority show in this country for 40 years. That is just a matter of educational background. There has never been a dramatic series with a black lead that has been renewed," says Dick Wolf, executive producer of "New York Undercover," a new drama series featuring two detectives -- one black and one Hispanic -- on Fox this fall. Wolf also produces "Law & Order" on NBC.
"So, to go after this network [Fox] for canceling shows, as opposed to the other three networks, was laughable. It's to their credit that they have been willing to take a risk that nobody else on commercial television has been willing to take," Wolf adds.
Some positive, some negative
"New York Undercover" is a good example of a series that some are going to see as positive, and some as negative.
On the negative side, it keeps blacks within the confines of an urban milieu that features drugs, guns, leather jackets, jive talk and rap music. The black detective, played by Malik Yoba (of "Cool Running" fame), could just as easily be a criminal. In a retro sense, he's nothing more than a hip-hop version of Philip Michael Thomas' Detective Tubbs in "Miami Vice" and a dozen other black TV cops.
Yet, there is a strong story line in the pilot about the detective agonizing over whether he should allow his ex-wife to send his son to a private school. The detective is afraid his son might be socialized away from his ethnic roots. Being a father is treated as something important in the pilot. That's not something a lot of black cop characters have had the chance to explore.
How does Yoba feel about the series?
"I feel really proud to be part of it," he says.
Wolf says "New York Undercover" addresses two of Dutton's charges. One, it's a drama with a black co-star. Two, it's on at 9 p.m., a time Dutton says blacks are Jim Crow'ed out of by the networks.
So much for charges of "ghetto-ization," Wolf says.
On the other hand, the series will air at 9 Thursday nights, after "Martin" and "Living Single," which are shows starring African-American characters. So, maybe, you have another kind of ghetto-ization. By night.
"M.A.N.T.I.S." -- a sci-fi, action-adventure series on Fox -- has the same potential as "New York Undercover" for conflicting interpretations.
One of the most disturbing patterns in black male characters on TV has been a tendency toward the diminutive or the giant -- Gary Coleman or Mr. T. The result is to portray black men as freaks or, at least, somehow abnormal.
Some viewers could see "M.A.N.T.I.S" that way. The premise has a scientist being wounded in a random act of violence and finding himself paralyzed. He invents a helmet-like device that is intended to help him walk. But it is so successful that it gives him superhuman powers, which he uses to fight crime.
Challenging the pattern?
Carl Lumbly, who plays the scientist, says there is a possibility some will say the show perpetuates the freak perception. But he says "M.A.N.T.I.S." challenges that pattern rather than playing to it, therefore making the show progressive rather than regressive.
"The thing that I leapt at first is that my character is a scientist," he says. "He is a man of science. And, very often our heroes -- and when I say 'our' I mean the heroes that black people are normally allowed to play -- have much more to do with superior physical abilities. You know, the ability to perform in athletics or entertainment, like singing. They don't always have to do with our abilities to use our minds.
"Yet, I was raised with a whole world of black heroes. Men like George Washington Carver, men of science. . . . My character fits into that tradition of black heroes."
Bryce Zabel, executive producer of the series, seconds Lumbly's positive spin on the character. "I was just thinking, Carl, if someone set out to stereotype you, I doubt they would make you a scientist in a wheelchair."
How about a series based on the comic premise of a black man dressing like a woman? Emasculation, liberation or neither?
ABC's "On Our Own" stars comedian Ralph Harris as the 20-year-old left in charge of six siblings after the death of their parents. To keep the family from being broken up, he has to pass as Aunt Jelcinda, aka Mama J.
The minute some viewers see Harris in drag, they are going to think of Flip Wilson's Geraldine. Is that retro and racially charged? How about Robin Williams' "Mrs. Doubtfire" or the ultimate in retro, Milton Berle in drag?
Managing without Alex
Remember the analysis of "Webster" and "Diff'rent Strokes" that said the real meaning of such shows was one of paternalism -- white people taking care of black children whose parents were absent? "On Our Own" features a black man attempting to take care of his six brothers and sisters, without asking Alex Karras or anyone else for help.
"Me and the Boys" is also about a black man taking care of his own. In this ABC sitcom, comedian Steve Harvey plays a widower raising his three sons with the help of his step-mother (Madge Sinclair).
Asked about Dutton's statement that blacks are allowed to be only in sitcoms, Sinclair said, "You take the success of Steve and Bill Cosby and so many others in sitcoms, and I don't think we have to trivialize that by saying that's a bad thing."
There will be other new black characters this season, and all will be in dramas. Cicely Tyson will co-star as an attorney in the NBC drama "Sweet Justice." Della Reese stars as an angel protecting wayward kids in "Touched by an Angel" on CBS. Bill Cosby plays a retired criminologist on NBC in "The Cosby Mysteries." Cosby's character debuted last season in a two-hour movie.
Ultimately, it seems as if every discussion about race on TV must come back to Cosby. Never has the complexity of the issue been better illustrated than with "The Cosby Show."
Critics, most of whom were white baby boomers, not only hailed the series but filled newspapers with stories saying the show's Nielsen success showed how much white America really liked blacks.
Meanwhile, two media scholars -- Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis -- attempted to find out what the series really meant to viewers by doing ethnographic interviews with blacks and whites in 52 focus groups. They found, not surprisingly, that the show meant different things to different viewers based on their age, race, class, education, gender and a number of other factors.
But some patterns emerged. One of the most disturbing was that many white viewers used "The Cosby Show" to justify a false belief that there was no discrimination in America; that blacks could have anything they wanted if they worked for it; that blacks who hadn't achieved middle-class status had only themselves to blame.
Class and race
"Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences and the Myth of the American Dream," the book written by Jhally and Lewis about their study, found another pattern crucial to the debate about "Roc" and "South Central." They found that class standing played as important a role as race in attitudes toward the show.
Also, they found that what many black viewers liked best about the show was the upper-middle-class affluence of the Huxtables. Many blacks said they did not want to see TV shows that featured working-class characters.
"Roc" and "South Central" were about working-class characters, and both rated low not only with the overall audience, but also with black viewers, according to Nielsen.
Fox says it was willing to stick with "Roc" as long as black viewers were watching. Two seasons ago, when "Roc" aired on Sundays between "In Living Color" and "Married . . . With $H Children," it was the second-highest-rated show in black homes. This season, in a new time slot on Tuesdays, "Roc" failed to
make the top 20 with black viewers.
It's an important point. A syndicated column by Clarence Page that appeared in The Sun recently attacked Fox for canceling "Roc," pointing out that "Roc" was the second-most-popular show with black Americans. The suggestion was that by canceling "Roc," Fox showed that it doesn't care about black viewers.
As a critic, I loved "Roc." If I had one TV wish, it would be that "Roc" stayed on the air. But facts are facts: Nielsen says black viewers weren't watching "Roc" this year.
Yet there's even another complication. What if "Roc" hadn't been moved from Sundays to Tuesdays? Sunday is a big night on Fox, Tuesday is not. Did Fox kill "Roc" by moving it, the way Tim Reid says CBS killed his "Frank's Place" series by moving it around?
It's complicated, all right -- the issue of black characters and prime-time television. But it's not hopelessly complicated.
As Yoba from "New York Undercover" says, "I think it's real
important to recognize that there's a lot of different languages that people speak in America. . . . Our view on a character might be 100 percent different. But at least we're having the dialogue now and respecting that diversity. You're not trying to tell me what I'm supposed to mean."