'Chris' endures as black-themed series dwindle

The Baltimore Sun

Life at Tattaglia High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., can be tough. Homework, heartbreak and, on this day, a red-haired bully is on the loose, determined to torment unsuspecting nerds.

Amid the hallway chaos, though, stands a grown-up wearing a white head scarf and gym shorts, with a valuable lesson to impart to the nerds -- how to take a bully's punch. The idea is to heighten the laughs for a scene being filmed on the set of Everybody Hates Chris, the nostalgic Chris Rock-inspired sitcom about a Brooklyn teenager growing up in the 1980s.

The adult is Ali LeRoi, who created the CW series with Rock and coaches the young actors on how best to move through the scene -- a comically tense encounter involving young Chris (Tyler James Williams), his best friend, Greg (Vincent Martella), and Joey (Travis Flory), the bully.

LeRoi is a TV rarity, a show runner guiding one of the few remaining series on network television dealing with black Americans. This, depending on whom you talk to, is a woeful or an encouraging development.

Although Chris and his friends still might be experiencing growing pains, the series -- filming its fourth season for airing this fall, in a move to Friday nights from Sundays -- is not, according to LeRoi.

"If we were a basketball team, we would be in the playoffs," said LeRoi, sitting in his office beneath a huge French poster from Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a satire about black comedies. "We know how to shoot this show, all the dynamics are beginning to jell, even our interactions with network executives are going better."

LeRoi speaks like a seasoned veteran as he acknowledges that Everybody Hates Chris has taken its share of punches since its 2005 debut. Once trumpeted as a breakout hit, the show has struggled through slipping ratings, marketing woes and network upheaval.

Moreover, Everybody Hates Chris is a show with a predominantly black cast in an era when black-themed series appear to be at a crossroads. This season's departure of the CW's long-running Girlfriends leaves only two network shows in prime time -- both struggling on the CW -- that revolve around black casts: Everybody Hates Chris and the Girlfriends spinoff The Game.

Meanwhile, on the cable side, the numbers are only slightly better. There's ABC Family's Lincoln Heights, a one-hour drama about a black family, and TBS' Tyler Perry's House of Payne, a highly rated sitcom. And last month, MyNetwork TV launched Under One Roof, a comedy starring rapper Flavor Flav that was met with a chorus of negative reviews.

The issue of fewer black stars and shows has provoked pointed concern from minority groups. In particular, Vic Bulluck, president of the Hollywood chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, decries the further shrinking of television's historically limited racial diversity.

"We're very concerned about and disappointed at the lack of representation," said Bulluck. "It's something that we've been discussing with all the networks for a while, ever since the Bernie Mac show left Fox. With Girlfriends now leaving, the situation becomes a lot more urgent. The situation as it stands now is unacceptable."

Lower numbers of primarily black shows, however, also might signal something completely different -- a growing dissolution of the medium's color line. Instead of being ignored, blacks merely might have become more deeply integrated and accepted into mainstream culture, thus eliminating the need for segregated series.

"Given the changes in society and having a serious African-American candidate running for president who has white financial and emotional support indicates that the time for 'black shows' has passed," said writer and comedian Franklyn Ajaye, who has worked on shows such as In Living Color.

Everybody Hates Chris fits perfectly in that niche and transcends the category of the traditional black show, maintains LeRoi. The show functions on several different levels -- as a family sitcom, as a nostalgic examination of adolescence in the '80s, and as a platform for the dry, observational humor of Rock, who narrates the series.

"From our perspective, this was never about being a black show," says LeRoi. "The interests of Chris and I are broad and eclectic. The foundation is reflective of our influences, Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith. It's broad and global. It's about family, a slice of life."

"It's hard for that kind of show to capture as large an audience as we would like," said Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment for the CW. "It's a period piece, it's set in a specific neighborhood and it's about an African-American family. People have to give it a chance to see how relatable it is."

The show's debut on the then-UPN network made headlines in September 2005 when it outperformed the highly hyped Friends spinoff Joey on NBC's powerhouse Thursday night. It was the fledgling network's highest rating ever for a sitcom and represented a major triumph for UPN over then-mighty NBC.

The program seemed destined to become a crossover hit and lift UPN into contender status. But it never happened. Part of the trouble was turbulence within the television industry.

Around this time, UPN merged with the WB to become the CW, an at-times-bumpy transition that left former UPN shows, particularly its black-based comedies, struggling to regain their audience. Meanwhile, the show's scheduling didn't help either, bouncing from Thursdays to Mondays to Sundays in an early-evening time slot.

Although it's no longer consider a big hit, LeRoi feels his show will stand the test of time.

"In the long run, this show will endure," he said. "We're not going away."

Greg Braxton writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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