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Black and White TV Race and drama: Network television, so often derided as superficial entertainment, is providing reasoned, dramatic discourse on racial issues nearly every night on some of prime time's best programs.

Prime-time network television is not the place you might expect to find a serious discussion of race -- especially during a season drowning in sitcoms about young friends.

But, contrary to notions of network entertainment as essential mindlessness, an informed and highly charged discourse on ethnicity, power and race is now taking place every weeknight on ABC, CBS, NBC and even Fox.

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To an extent without precedent, millions of Americans are bearing witness nightly to symbolic representations of some of their deepest feelings on one of the deepest issues in the national psyche. As make-believe characters meet real-world attitudes on matters black and white, the point where they intersect is becoming a socially relevant, resonant and red-hot spot in American popular culture.

The forum consists of those programs regularly referred to as "quality, adult drama." All are about doctors or cops, and all but one air at 10 p.m. weeknights -- the time when most adults are watching and the greatest latitude is given for subject matter and treatment.

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Monday it's "Chicago Hope" on CBS, Tuesday "NYPD Blue" on ABC, Wednesday "Law & Order" on NBC, Thursday "ER" on NBC and "New York Undercover" on Fox, and Friday "Homicide: Life on the Street" on NBC. Three of the series -- "Chicago Hope," "NYPD Blue" and "ER" -- are among the 20 most-watched TV shows with weekly audiences of at least 30 million.

Hardly a week has gone by this year when one of the six series has not had a major storyline involving race.

One week on "Chicago Hope," the white Dr. Diane Grad (Jayne Brook) and the black Dr. Dennis Hancock (Vondie Curtis-Hall) had an emotional confrontation about race after she tells a black teen-age patient who had shot her friend that she hopes the teen dies. Then on "Homicide," black detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and white detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) have an equally emotional confrontation over the shooting of a black youth by Bayliss' cousin (David Morse). And on "ER," another tense scene results when a white para-medic ("Shep" as portrayed by Ron Eldard) makes a negative remark about blacks, and a black nurse ("Malik," played by rapper Deezer D.) takes offense.

Probably the most talked-about episode came two weeks ago on "NYPD Blue" when white detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) used the "n" word while arresting a black man, drawing the wrath of his black supervisor, Lt. Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel). The show crackled with the intensity of the ethnic baggage both characters carry, as well as with the dynamics of power, anger and resentment involved in their squad-room relationship.

And more such episodes are on the way. Next week in two compelling crossover episodes of "Law & Order" and "Homicide," Pembleton winds up face to face in "the box" with the leader of a white supremacist group responsible for the murder of six blacks at a Baltimore church and 20 blacks on a New York subway train. Both episodes are all about race, with a closing argument Feb. 7 from assistant district attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) connecting the show's fictional trial to the real-world trial of O.J. Simpson.

"It does seem as if there's more discussion of race on television these days, and I think one of the reasons behind it could involve what's happened with the O.J. Simpson case," says Terry Williams, a sociologist and MacArthur Foundation grant recipient who teaches courses on race and media at the New School for Social Research in New York City. "Ultimately, though, I think the reasons for the discussion are a lot more complicated than just O.J. Simpson."

The hypothesis behind Simpson-as-explanation is that Hollywood producers and writers, many of whom are neighbors of Simpson's in Brentwood, were watching and thinking a lot about the trial as it unfolded. So, it's not surprising that its theme of a nation divided and the ensuing viewer appeal should find their way into scripts this season.

"I guess you can use O.J. as the cause of this, but then you would still be left having to explain O.J. [the phenomenon]," says Sheri Parks, who teaches courses on television, race and gender at the University of Maryland College Park.

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Theories

The producers and stars have their own explanations and theories for the stepped-up discussion of race in their shows.

Dick Wolf, the executive producer of "Law & Order" and "New York Undercover," feels that taken together the six series make for nothing less than a "golden age" of television drama, and that the competition among them "has raised the bar" in terms of excellence and social relevance. Such relevance is simply impossible without talking about race, Wolf says.

"NYPD Blue" creator Steven Bochco agrees. "When you are doing these kinds of shows, these kinds of stories are absolutely necessary," he says in discussing the Sipowicz-Fancy episode. "These are exactly the kinds of conflicts that exist in the police department, and are sort of a paradigm for the society at large. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't tell these stories."

Franz, whose portrayal of Sipowicz earned him an Emmy as best dramatic actor, says race is "in the back of our minds constantly I keep that always in the back of Sipowicz's head, and I think James McDaniel does the same with Fancy."

When asked about his reasons for the ongoing discussion of race in "Homicide," executive producer Tom Fontana says, "There's a two-part answer to that. One is that the series is based on a non-fiction book that has a lot of truth about the way things are in Baltimore -- which is the way things are in most major cities -- in terms of race relations. So, we always had this mandate to tell as much as we could about race relations."

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The other reason is the presence and talent of Braugher, Yaphet Kotto and Clark Johnson, which allow the writers to deal with the nuances and ambiguities of race, says Fontana.

"The fact that we were lucky enough to get three outstanding actors of African descent, who we could play off that or not depending on the stories, has been a great enlightenment for us as writers," Fontana says. "I mean, we are able to go back to that whenever it's necessary, yet, we don't have to deal with it on a weekly basis and, more importantly, we don't have to resolve it in a simplified way [at the end of an episode], like, 'Let's all hug, and it will all go away.' "

Cultural factors

But Parks and Williams think there are other cultural factors at play in what we are now seeing each weeknight at 10.

"I think there's something else going on here, something deeper, that's been growing for a number of years, pre-O.J.," Parks says. "It involves an interest -- fascination even -- with the black male and notions of hypermasculinity."

The representation of black male identity on network television is both complicated and profound. Little more than a sliver of it can be taken on in this forum. The tendency in network television has been to distort images of black men away from any social reality toward such extremes as giants, like Mr. T of "A-Team," and midgets, like Arnold of "Diff'rent Strokes."

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"That's what really concerns me about what we've had on television -- the images of black men with only the extremes," says Howard University's Jannette L. Dates, author of "Split Images," a study of African-American images in the media.

"We miss all of the men in the middle. We miss the men we are married to, the men who are our sons, our cousins, our friends," Dates explained during a panel discussion on African-American television images moderated by Congressman Kweisi Mfume for his show, "The Bottom Line."

In light of that analysis, one of the most encouraging aspects of the quality dramas might be found in them offering some less extreme images, such as Eriq LaSalle's Dr. Peter Benton on "ER," Curtis-Hall's Dr. Hancock on "Chicago Hope" and the three black detectives on "Homicide" -- Braugher's Pembleton, Kotto's Al Giardello and Johnson's Detective Meldrick Lewis.

While Pembleton could be seen as a hyper-detective of sorts -- the smartest, the most serious, the most dedicated, the most angst-ridden -- there is some range in "Homicide," with Lewis, perhaps, the most progressively different type because of his very middle-range, average-guy-ness.

But words like "progressively" and "encouraging" can be misleading; one person's notion of progress on matters of race can be another's idea of backsliding.

For example, another new development in these dramas this season is that of white characters, like Sipowicz and Dr. Grad, expressing negative feelings toward blacks. It's suddenly all right for white characters, with whom the producers clearly want viewers to continue to identify, to use the "n" word and admit to feelings associated with the word. Is that progressive or regressive?

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And can we talk about dramas with integrated casts and a high level of social consciousness in matters of race without mentioning a growing tendency toward all-white or all-black sitcoms -- "Friends" vs. "Martin" -- and a growing polarization in audiences, with less and less overlap year to year between black and white viewers when it comes to favorite shows, according to A.C. Nielsen numbers.

One of the more cynical explanations offered for the increased discussion of race in dramas is that it's the result of a network desire to build bigger audiences by getting blacks and whites to watch some of the same shows. The networks were unanimous in denying that.

More discussion

All that can be said with certainty is that race is being discussed more than ever in prime-time drama this year, and experts think that discussion can be seen as a positive development.

"If it's done in a serious way by serious people and diverse viewpoints are included, then, yes, I think it can be useful," Williams says. "And that is my sense of what's happening in series like 'NYPD Blue.' "

Parks agrees, saying, "I also think it can be useful. I mean, let's keep in mind where else are millions of people going to get this level of discussion?

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"The only place they are going to get something that's even a nod at a larger discussion of race in this culture, where you see intelligent black men trying to work through their race position, is on television.

"If you think about some of these characters, vis a vis Sidney Poitier -- who was really important for his time -- these men have many more dimensions. Some of them get to have somewhat of a personal life, they get to be intense. I mean, they're not singing with nuns I think that shows us we have come somewhere.

"But, again, it's television, and, by its nature, television has to exploit the very thing it discusses to get you to watch."

As Braugher, who plays one of those new more multi-dimensional black men, warns: Never forget the difference between television and social reality.

"You know, race and race relations are not pretty. And, on TV, you can't talk about what people actually talk about," Braugher says. "So, we talk around it, we talk above it, we talk about it. And we do a lot of things. We illustrate it, and blah-blah-blah.

"But a long and complex in-depth discussion about how race and racism affect detectives in Baltimore, it's not within the scope of our show We do the best job that we can."

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The shows

Race issues are tackled each weeknight in these television shows:

Monday: "Chicago Hope" (CBS)

Tuesday: "NYPD Blue" (ABC)

Wednesday: "Law & Order" (NBC)

Thursday: "ER" (NBC) and "New York Undercover" (Fox)

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Friday: "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC)



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