Tonight's premiere of CBS' "Under One Roof" is definitely a high point of television's second season.
Many advance notices have focused on the fact that it's the first family drama about African-Americans since Alex Haley's "Palmerstown" in 1981 and Bernie Casey's "Harris & Co." in 1979. That's true, and it makes "Under One Roof" special.
But all that "first black" business not only puts a lot of pressure on the producers, it can also steal some of the pleasure of watching it. Some viewers might come to their television sets tonight so keyed to the racial significance that they'll fail to enjoy the series for what it mostly is -- a warm and fuzzy hour, filled with wisecracks and comedy. "Under One Roof" is primarily a feel-good family series that's as comforting as hugging a teddy bear, if you're willing to go with its flow.
The writers on tonight's episode, which airs at 8 on WJZ (Channel 13), are Nigel and Carol Evan McKeand, who created "Family," one of the warmest and fuzziest family dramas ever. The series is developed, produced and directed by Thomas Carter, an Emmy Award-winning director for "Equal Justice." The McKeands are white, Carter is black.
"Under One Roof" is the story of the Langstons, a middle-class, multi-generational family living in an upstairs/downstairs flat in Seattle. James Earl Jones plays Grandpa Neb, who lives downstairs with his adult daughter, Ayisha (Monique Ridge). Neb's a police sergeant and a little bit of a curmudgeon. Every time he appears on camera you feel your mouth want to break into a smile. He infuses the series with charm, irascibility and something more -- "Under One Roof" feels real.
As only great actors can, Jones makes every scene, almost every line, feel authentic -- true on some basic, urgent level. He's one of those performers you simply can't get enough of. In his first scene, he is preparing to paint his late wife's piano room so that Ayisha can work in it. His wife has been dead a year, we are told, and Neb thinks it's about time to let go. Jones should win an Emmy just for the way he carries the paint cans in this scene.
As Neb's getting ready to paint, Ayisha is lecturing on the four basic food groups to a teen-ager who is swiping a piece of cold pizza for breakfast. The teen-ager, Marcus (Merlin Santana), we discover, is a foster child in Neb's family.
Meanwhile upstairs, Ron Langston (Joe Morton), Neb's son, and Ron's wife, Maggie (Vanessa Bell Calloway), are facing the overwhelming number of details most families have on any school day -- plus a few more.
One of their children, Derrick (Ronald Joshua Scott), wants a dog and brings a stray sheep dog into the kitchen. Maggie is finally finishing her bachelor's degree after too many years away from her academic dream and Ron is overloaded with details about his new business venture, a hardware store he's opening with a friend from the Marine Corps, from which Ron recently retired.
If that all sounds pretty normal or even mundane, that's part of what makes "Under One Roof" unique. In the main, black television characters have either been larger than life, like Mr. T on "The A-Team"), or smaller than life, like Webster on "Webster" and Gary Coleman on "Diff'rent Strokes."
White producers have created more freakish black characters, like Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) on "Family Matters," than representative ones like, say, the Huxtable kids. The freaks can be traced back to 19th-century minstrel show character types.
But "Under One Roof" is just a strong cast in an engaging story about family members struggling to make room for each other, and each other's needs, in their own complicated lives. The Langstons could be the Lawrences from "Family" or any of a dozen other television households.
CBS has ordered only six episodes of the series -- a normal order is at least 13 -- so "Under One Roof" is clearly on tryout.
Fourteen years is a long time between black family dramas. Don't miss this one.