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Too subtle for the small screen

Cross-cultural romance: Now that's where TV needs more reality programming. But as long as hard truths are ignored, cultural nuances - and viewer interest - get lost.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


As a black man who has been married to a white woman for nearly 10 years, I found last year's TV season affected me in a special way.

That's because it featured what seemed to be a record number of interracial and cross-cultural relationships: black presidential aide Charlie Young and the president's white daughter Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing; high-strung white teenager Grace Manning and black classmate Jared on ABC's Once and Again; Ling Woo's romance with Greg Fish on Ally McBeal; Jewish Dr. Geoffrey Weiss' romance with gentile nurse Grace Patterson on CBS' predominantly black drama City of Angels.

Midway through the 2000-01 season, this humble critic has a question.

What happened?

Several of these groundbreaking relationships already have quickly disappeared from the high-profile network TV shows where they first surfaced.

Worse, many of them never really offered a look at the special world interracial couples inhabit.

Though the relationship sparked a season-ending cliffhanger that saw the president and one of his top aides get shot, producers at The West Wing have barely referred to the relationship between Charlie and Zoey (as if a black valet and the president's daughter could have a romance that causes an assassination attempt without worldwide attention).

Despite lots of well-intentioned talk from producers about exploring interracial issues last year, Jared never showed up in Once and Again's new episodes this season. Instead, the show's sole character of color was kissed off with a throwaway line from Grace in an early episode, indicating their romance went the way of most teen flings.

When City of Angels was canceled by CBS in November, the Weiss-Patterson romance also died.

Recent attempts to explore interracial romances on prime-time shows such as Felicity and ER have also ended, slowing the trend almost as quickly as it began. (Taye Diggs' recent addition to the cast of Ally McBeal is a promising sign, though.)

Producers cite mundane reasons for the changes, including the departure of the actor playing Jared (Robert Richard) from Once and Again and West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin's decision not to focus much on the Charlie-Zoey connection. (Lukewarm fan reaction to the actor playing Zoey probably hasn't helped).

"I never really thought I was going to tackle interracial relationships or blow the lid off anything," Sorkin said recently. "I know it's like saying, 'Other than the shooting, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?' But except for the shooting, I was more interested in the relationship between someone who works for the president and someone who is the daughter of the president."

Which leads to my biggest problem with many interracial relationships on TV. Too often, they're indistinguishable from the romantic relationships between two white characters.

Yes, Eriq La Salle's Dr. Peter Benton struggled with the implications of dating a white woman years ago on ER, eventually ending his romance with Britisher Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston). It was a struggle La Salle himself seemed to endure, asking producers to end the relationship so his character could have a healthy romance with a black woman.

Likewise, Dr. Weiss had to deal with anti-Semitism in his attempts to court Grace Patterson. But high-profile series such as Ally McBeal and The West Wing have not spent much time dwelling on the ethnic differences between their interracial lovebirds.

"I feel like the best contribution I can make as a writer toward these things is by ignoring them," said Sorkin, admitting that crafting the skinhead assassination story line felt as if "we were getting into science-fiction," because he assumed such relationships enjoy widespread acceptance.

Sorkin, who is white, also admits he was surprised by the hate mail that came after he arranged an impromptu "walk and talk" scene last season in which Zoey and Charlie kissed. Developed on the fly to add 45 seconds to an episode, the scene draw a few ugly letters that turned the executive producer's head.

"Frankly, the most surprising thing . . . is that these people were watching our show and not WWF Smackdown!," he said, scorn rising in his voice. "In my world, such (romances) are not particularly noteworthy. Having said that, I created an extreme case to remind us that it's not completely irrelevant."

Part of the problem, at least for TV producers, is that the drama of interracial romance in the 21st century is often much more subtle.

And TV doesn't do subtle well.

That extra glance you get at the checkout counter. The frown that passes over a grandmother's face as you walk by. The bigoted jokes that come while you're among your own people, forcing a choice: Do I make a scene or let it slide?

Often, this is the currency of romance outside your race. Truth is, for me at least, rarely has a bigot of any color stood up and said something stupid to my face.

It's the tiny question marks that make a bigger impact.

Family reactions can be a flashpoint. When I visited my wife's family for the first time, two of her brothers-in-law refused to sit in the same room with me (this even though her older sister had already married a black man).

In tackling interracial relationships, television is often forced to speak a language too subtle for its brutish tongue. In TV-land, either racist skinheads are shooting at a president to break up an interracial love, or two high schoolers of different races are hooking up with nary a sideways glance from parents, friends or other family.

And with TV struggling to find diversity behind-the-scenes, it can't help that many shows are written by white producers who probably aren't familiar with the intricacies of cross-cultural romance.

Barbara Hall, executive producer of CBS' hit drama Judging Amy, has tried to buck the trend by dealing with cross-ethnic connections in indirect ways. She has shown lead character Amy Gray's white brother adopting a biracial child and has played with an obvious sexual tension between Gray (Amy Brenneman) and her black court officer Bruce Van Exel (Richard T. Jones).

"I don't like to preach, but I do like to make the public face up to the fact that we all now have to find a way to deal with interracial matters and biracial children . . . this is a part of the American experience now," said Hall, who is white.

"My feeling is that a lot of the African American characters are 'whited up' by the time they get on television," she added. "I would like to see more of a different kind of culture . . . It's irresponsible to make TV look different. It's also irresponsible to gloss over it."

Raised in southern Virginia, Hall said she wasn't surprised by the negative reaction from some viewers when she crafted a dream sequence in which Gray and Van Exel share a passionate kiss -- even among viewers of color.

"There's a lot of ambivalence in the African American community about Amy's and Bruce's relationship," said the producer, who often surfs Internet message boards devoted to her show. "I was surprised at how little hate mail there was about the scenes where we had them kissing. But there were a lot of postings from African-Americans saying they didn't want to see them (together), either."

Yvette Walker, who is black, has been married to a white man for 10 years and with him co-founded theNew People Interracial e-magazine (http://www.newpeoplemagazine.com). While pleased that TV often avoids stereotypical visions of interracial love -- as some kind of Jungle Fever-style lust for exotic sex or as a relationship constantly buffeted by racism -- she also hopes for a more nuanced view.

"TV has never been very good at fleshing out relationships, period. So the fact that they're even bothering to write in (interracial couples) I think is a good thing," says Walker, who also serves as assistant managing editor/staff development at the Kansas City Star newspaper.

"I do think it's important for people to understand that (interracial couples) are not waking up to crosses burning on the front yard every morning," she added. "I would like to see (stories) where race is certainly acknowledged . . . or maybe even celebrated. (But) if I had to pick between always focusing on race or not focusing on race, I'd say let's not focus on race."

Beyond Diggs' role on Ally McBeal, there are other signs of hope. This year's new Sopranos episodes feature a romance between mob daughter Meadow Soprano and a biracial boyfriend. The relationship highlights Mafia boss Tony Soprano's bigoted outlook and Meadow's own slightly selfish motives.

Also, NBC's midseason drama First Years features an interracial couple among the central characters, and ABC's comedy The Job shows married cop Denis Leary with a black or biracial mistress.

It's too early to know if TV -- especially on the networks -- will take advantage of such casting choices to offer a deeper look at interracial relationships. But there's little doubt that showing the reality of our lives in an increasingly multicultural society remains one of TV's biggest challenges.

I can't help thinking it's time network TV learned to bring these relationships to television in a real, honest way -- without hiding behind platitudes about a colorblind society.

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