Friday night family sitcoms are not the place one usually expects to find programming that breaks new ground. Goofy characters (like Steve Urkel) and big, happy families (as on Step By Step) have been the norm.
But Like Family, which premieres tonight on the WB network, offers a sitcom household that flies in the face of more than 50 years of network programming when it comes to portraying African-American masculinity. The blended-family sitcom features two families - one black, one white - living in the same small house in New Jersey. The premise has a middle-class black family of five opening its door to a single white working mom, Maddie (Diane Farr), and her 16-year-old son, Keith (J Mack Slaughter).
The reason given for the move-in is that Maddie needs help raising her son, who has been getting in trouble back in their old neighborhood "in the city." The black mom, Tanya (Holly Robinson Peete), a longtime friend of Maddie's, believes she and her husband, Ed (Kevin Michael Richardson), can help straighten out the hard-to-control white teen.
As Tanya puts it to her husband in the pilot, "For God's sake, Ed, they need family. Keith's been hanging out with the wrong crowd. The boy needs a strong male influence."
This being a Friday night sitcom, Ed responds: "Tell him to watch Dr. Phil."
But think about it: The very premise of this sitcom has the African-American man as the strong male role model for the white boy whose father is missing. I can't think of another series in the history of network television that offered this scenario, but I could list a million that featured black fathers missing in action while white men raised their children. How about Diff'rent Strokes and Webster? And how about the teen-ager who is hard to control being white instead of black?
This is landmark stuff, and the WB network deserves extra points for going about it in a quiet way - presenting the series as just another sitcom that it hopes families will watch. The WB has also given it a great lineup slot after Reba, a solid and successful family sitcom starring country singer Reba McIntyre. I like the fact that Reba's audience will get a chance to meet the folks on Like Family tonight.
There is, alas, some bad news on Like Family - the writing is fairly weak. Most of the jokes in the pilot are set in the bathroom or refer to bathroom functions.
The pilot opens with Keith in the household's one bathroom while everyone - from his mom, Tanya, Ed and Danika (Megalyn Echikunwoke as the 16-year-old daughter of Tanya and Ed) - walks in on him. One of the "crisis" moments involves Keith's breaking Ed's beloved toilet seat.
This sitcom is too important in a sociological sense for the WB to let it sink because the writing can't rise above the level of silly.
Memo to the WB: This is a promising start. But spend some money, hire some consulting producers for this series and help change the face of prime-time network TV for the better.
Like Family premieres at 8:30 tonight on WBDC (Channel 50). It's pre-empted by Orioles baseball on WNUV (Channel 54), unless tonight's game is postponed due to weather.
Luis, a new Fox sitcom starring veteran actor Luis Guzman, is also heavily ethnic and in its own small way breaks a bit of new ground. It has the most advanced (I didn't say enlightened) sense of Hispanic identity I have seen in a network sitcom. And, just as in Like Family, white is the minority color.
Guzman's Luis is landlord of a small apartment building in Spanish Harlem that houses a doughnut shop on the ground floor. One of the tenants is his 24-year-old daughter (Jaclyn DeSantis), who lives with her boyfriend, an unemployed artist. She's Latina, he's Anglo. The boyfriend's ethnicity and lack of a job are constant sources of consternation to the cranky Luis, who share his opinions - wanted or not - with anyone who enters the doughnut shop.
Described by Fox as a "Puerto Rican Archie Bunker," Luis is constantly referencing race and ethnicity, especially in his sparring with his ex-wife, who is Dominican. Such distinctions among Latin American ethnic groups are rare for network TV, even if it is mostly used in the pilot for insult humor between ex-wives and husbands.
I suspect that humor will be too much for many viewers in these politically correct times, and as fine an actor as Guzman is, I don't think viewers will give him the latitude they grant Whoopi Goldberg to make such jokes in her NBC sitcom, Whoopi.
Still, Luis is part of a noteworthy change in the way ethnicity is depicted on network TV. In that sense, if no other, it is worth a look.
Luis airs at 8:30 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45).