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Getting race right

Most TV shows don't, but some do. Why are some successful at reflecting ethnic diversity while others fall flat?

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 27, 2001


When talk turns to diversity in television, we're often looking for dysfunction.

How low is the percentage of minorities? How stereotypical are the portrayals? Who is ignored? Who gets too much?

And is any of it evidence of racism?

On the subject of race, it still seems that TV gets it wrong more often than right.

But not all the time.

As the curtain closes on 2001, let's recognize the shows and characters that do get it right, the TV series or portrayals that reflect America's growing ethnic and cultural diversity.

My picks: NBC's medical comedy Scrubs; NBC's New York-based emergency worker drama Third Watch; Fox's new CIA thriller 24; Lifetime's drama about the friendship between a black woman and a white woman, Any Day Now; HBO's prison drama Oz; and NBC's emergency room drama ER (see related story for more on each show).

I wanted to discuss shows that reach across race, so I've excluded series with monoracial casts among the primary characters. In an often-segregated TV universe overwhelmingly populated by able-bodied, single, heterosexual men under 40, that exempts a lot of television.

That means no Soul Food and no Sopranos; Friends and Sex and the City get the boot along with My Wife and Kids and The Bernie Mac Show. Many of TV's most-watched and critically acclaimed shows also don't make the grade: Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Malcolm in the Middle, Once and Again and The West Wing, because their core casts are almost entirely white.

Some shows that are diverse, such as NYPD Blue, didn't get my nod because their success with race themes has been spotty (for instance, I'm still uncomfortable with the way it encourages audiences to root for an alcoholic bigot -- even if he is the most compelling character on prime time TV).

Even a series such as ABC's The Practice, which features two amazing black characters in Steve Harris' Eugene Young and Lisa Gay Hamilton's Rebecca Washington, falls short because its only core minority characters are black.

I'm more interested in shows that exist along racial fault lines -- exploring the electric, kinetic area where cultures meet and often clash. That much said, how can viewers tell if the shows they're watching help explode stereotypes or perpetuate them?

For Donald Bogle, author of the exhaustive history of African-Americans on TV Prime Time Blues, it's all about giving characters of color the same emotional depth that white characters get, especially in workplace dramas such as ABC's The Practice or NBC's ER.

That often means showing their lives outside the office.

"When black people leave the workplace, there is so much that can change that tells us so much -- their language, body language, references," Bogle said. "African-Americans are Americans. But there are still these cultural distinctions to be seen."

For example, one of the characteristics that made Eriq La Salle's Dr. Peter Benton such a compelling character on ER was his bond with his hearing-impaired son and friction with his working-class family -- especially as his mother succumbed to Alzheimer's disease.

In fact, ER notched a quiet landmark in La Salle's final episode as Benton, showing two black men engaged in a court battle for custody of Benton's son, Reese.

Both were middle-class noncriminals striving to love a boy whose mother was killed in a car accident. It's a story any two characters could have played, but with two black fathers involved, the tale subtly refuted stereotypes about neglectful African-American fathers without whacking viewers over the head.

Bogle lauded a scene where Benton went to court and forgot to wear a tie, so his attorney's assistant offered his. "He looked at it and said 'That's the whitest tie I've ever seen,' " the author added, laughing. "It's important for TV to show (how) black characters hold on to their culture. (And) it was subtle . . . that I like.

Andrew Rojecki, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said there's a sure way to tell when a series will have trouble dealing with race.

"If there's only one character in the show that is non-white, that character ends up carrying the weight of his or her group . . . they become this symbol," said Rojecki, who co-wrote a book on the subject, The Black Image in the White Mind.

"The writers, who are (usually) white, become extremely cautious about how they portray a character like that," added Rojecki. "In the end, you need to find a variety of characters that allow themselves to be seen in their full dimension."

Rojecki also criticizes workplace shows that slot people of color in supervisory roles, isolating them from the primary characters. Think about James McDaniel's Lt. Arthur Fancy on NYPD Blue or S. Epatha Merkerson's Lt. Anita Van Buren on NBC's Law & Order.

Their roles may have been an effort to place characters of color in important positions. Still, even though each character has had a few episodes featuring their lives, both Fancy and Van Buren were mostly excluded from the day-to-day actions of the show's core characters -- meaning less screen time and less developed story lines.

Worse than over-emphasizing race on TV, though, may be the reverse.

"There are a lot of shows where race is ignored," said Katie Heintz-Knowles, a consultant who develops an annual study of TV diversity commissioned by Children Now, a San Francisco-based children's advocacy group.

"I don't think color blindness is a good thing," added Heintz-Knowles, who is reviewing tapes of two or three episodes from every show in prime time network TV for the group's latest study. "We're looking for acknowledgement of some sort of difference, when you can tell people are aware of and respectful of the differences."

In the debut episode of NBC's Scrubs, lead character John "J.D." Dorian (who is white) talks to his best friend Turk (who is black), about rap music's use of the n-word.

Dorian: "If we're both singing along, and knowing that, otherwise, I would never use the word, am I allowed to say . . ."

Turk: "No."

Dorian: "Well, that's good to know . . . 'cause I didn't know that."

As always, TV's struggle remains showing characters of color that are realistic and relevant -- avoiding stereotypes and hyper-positive images while portraying a person connected both to their culture and the mainstream.

(I can't help recalling one of the first NYPD Blue episodes to feature Det. Baldwin Jones, who is black, objecting to white police officers watching a tape of black people having sex to determine if a rape occurred. It felt unreal and contrived -- a conflict created by someone who doesn't understand what really concerns black people today.)

Felix Sanchez, who with actors Esai Morales, Sonia Braga and Jimmy Smits created the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts in 1997, praises Morales' latest role: NYPD Blue's Lt. Tony Rodriguez.

Though he only joined the cast last season, replacing McDaniel's departing Lt. Fancy, already Rodriguez has been shown handling a robbery case involving his mother and working to bring a friend's wife into the precinct -- showing a personal side that Fancy took years to reveal.

"(Rodriguez) is a Latino without baggage . . . no drug problem, no thick accent," said Sanchez, who also cites UC: Undercover's Jon Seda and Dark Angel's biracial lead Jessica Alba as significant actors in prime time.

"When I look at a Latino character on a show, I ask, 'What is its relationship to the plot?' " he added. "Are they part of the show, or a potted plant?"

Hispanics, who can be any race and are more than 12 percent of the U.S. population, get about 2 percent of prime time TV roles, according to a recent study by the Screen Actors Guild. Boosting those numbers will take some serious effort, Sanchez acknowledged.

"As we approach pilot season (in February), it is really critical for casting directors to say, 'Do I have the names of 10 Latino actors in my head that I'm trying to place?' " he added. "If they don't, we will find ourselves in September with very few Latinos in the 2002-2003 TV season."

Challenges remain. Too many TV shows are still segregated, with few quality roles available for black women, Latinos or Asian-Americans (I'll ask again: Why does ER continue showing a major metropolitan hospital with no East Indian, Hispanic or male Asian-American doctors?)

And too many shows, such as Damon Wayans' My Wife and Kids and the WB's The Steve Harvey Show, rely on the charisma of talented performers of color to make up for underwritten roles.

"Often in television, it comes down to the people on screen that we like and respond to, regardless of what's written for them," said Bogle, noting that stars such as Sanford and Son's Redd Foxx and Chico and the Man's Freddie Prinze often transcended horribly stereotypical scripts. "Nowadays, TV doesn't want to offend (minority) viewers . . . but they rarely think of speaking to them, either."

The shows

SCRUBS, 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC: Featuring core characters that are black and Latino (Donald Faison's Turk and Judy Reyes' Carla Espinosa), this show touches on race differences without getting lost in them. Because Turk and Carla are dating, we get to see the personal lives of both minority characters, and their presence helps create a big city hospital environment that's nearly as diverse as the real thing.

THIRD WATCH, 9 p.m. Mondays, NBC: Before its two Latino characters departed last season, this show about New York City emergency workers was easily one of the most diverse series on TV, featuring black, Hispanic and Asian-American characters at the core of a large ensemble cast. A recent episode in which two white police officers allowed a young black girl to be raped (they thought she was a prostitute doing business), highlighted how the series regularly touches on race issues without making them a central, overwhelming focus.

ANY DAY NOW, 10 p.m Sundays, Lifetime: What other series could get away with an episode in which the "n-word" is used more than 70 times? In its stories about two 40-something women, one black and one white, friends since childhood in Birmingham, Ala., this show has touched on interracial relationships, the Ku Klux Klan and whether using racial epithets can be considered the equal of a physical assault. Toss in a way-cool technique of flashing back to the women's childhood, via black and white scenes, and you've got a potent, exciting examination of race and class on TV.

OZ, 10 p.m. Sundays on HBO, beginning Jan. 6: It might seems strange to highlight a drama about a maximum-security prison for its portrayal of race issues. But HBO's Oz features a cast of all colors and sexual orientations, highlighting how black, Hispanic and Caucasian inmates coexist in the most dehumanizing environment imaginable. Along the way, we see how poverty, drugs and urban decay have helped so many young people of color land behind bars.

24, 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox: Besides rescuing Keifer Sutherland's career, this real-time series about 24 hours in the life of a harried CIA agent has another groundbreaking twist -- a black presidential candidate who has a real shot at the job. Dennis Haysbert is magnetic as the candidate with an awful secret -- not what you'd think -- surrounded by a loving, capable family that seems as ready for the Oval Office as any Kennedy or Clinton, in ways both good and bad.

ER, 10 p.m. Thursdays, NBC: Despite times when it seems a little skittish about race (including staffing a Chicago emergency room mostly with white doctors), this show nevertheless has offered a diversity of characters and situations, including a black hospital employee with the HIV virus, a doctor struggling with coming out as lesbian, a Croatian doctor whose family was killed in the war, an Asian doctor whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy shocked her strict family and more. But with its most compelling character of color, Peter Benton, out the door this year, its best days of diversity may be in the past.

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