'Roc' sitcom has solid core

Televison

August 23, 1991|By Michael HIll

At last, Baltimore has a television series that's almost as good as the city itself.

Fox's new "Roc," which gets a sneak preview Sunday night at 7:30 -- the pilot episode will be repeated on Thursday before the show settles into its 8:30 p.m. Sunday time slot -- has the same sort of solid-at-the-core, rough-around-the-edges appeal of the town in which it is set.

Like Baltimore, it's warm and funny and genuine. It's missing those look-at-us, aren't-we-clever lines, the gratuitous jokes piled top of one another that are the sitcom equivalent of the phony glitz and glamour that's so refreshingly absent from this city.

The show is taped in Los Angeles. But it's no accident that 'Roc' has Baltimore down so right.

It stars Charles Dutton, the Tony-nominated actor who grew up in sight of the Maryland Penitentiary and then spent a number of years there before discovering the world of drama and turning his life around.

And Dutton's character of trash collector Roc Emerson was developed after Dutton and creator Stan Daniels ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi") made a trip to Baltimore, talked to a number of city sanitation workers, and were particularly impressed by one, John Wood, a 57-year-old man who has spent almost 30 years toting garbage.

So when you hear that 'Roc' is set in Baltimore, that doesn't mean that the city's name was chosen almost at random then relegated to the background. It means that in the pilot episode, Roc gives an impassioned speech about the value of a semi-detached house.

Roc is a garbage man, hard working and thrifty. He's proud that he's been able to furnish his house with castoffs he's come across on his garbage route. He saves money by reading yesterday's paper, an easy discard to pick up.

He's a fervent believer in the American dream, a vision he shares with his wife Eleanor who leaves for her night job as a nurse just after Roc gets home from his day at work.

Living in their house is his father Andrew, an unreconstructed follower of Malcolm X, constantly suspicious of what he sees as the white-dominated societal structures that Roc feels are his foundation for success. Added to the ensemble is Roc's brother Joey, a hustler looking for the shortcut, an easy way to the big bucks.

That the characters feel so fully developed from the start is a tribute both to Daniels' script and to the immense strength of this cast that immediately comes off as an ensemble working to make each scene work, not a collection of preening stars standing around waiting to deliver another funny line.

It's not surprising that they work together so well since both Rocky Carroll, who plays the brother, and Carl Gordon, who plays the father, co-starred with Dutton on Broadway in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson." Ella Joyce, who plays Eleanor, also has a strong stage foundation.

As with most good domestic comedies, the plot in the "Roc" pilot is simple enough. A gruff relationship is set up between Roc and his father, Andrew. The brother, Joey, unexpectedly returns home, and although Roc feeds and houses his father, Andrew greets the shyster brother like the prodigal son.

Eventually, the story turns on Eleanor's upcoming birthday allowing the conflicting values in the Emerson household to come into insightful contrast.

"Roc" is not perfect. It stumbles at times over the fine line between reality-based comedy and farce. The occasional funny line falls flat.

But it does achieve one of Dutton's stated goals -- each scene conveys its reality. If Roc or another character gets mad, you believe that he's really mad, not that he's just pretending to be mad until the next joke comes around, the case with most sitcoms.

And make no mistake, "Roc" is funny. There are three or four laugh-out-loud moments in this show, a high count for any half-hour comedy. In between it's consistently amusing. That quality should remain because, though Daniels is semi-retiring to a creative consultant role, two top "Cheers" writers, Mert Rich and Brian Pollack, are taking over.

Besides reflecting so well on Baltimore, "Roc" has a chance to be an important step in black sitcoms. When "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" came on NBC last fall, there was much talk that its juxtaposition of a street rap artist in an upper-class family would show the wide variety of lifestyles and attitudes in an African-American community that is often depicted as monolithic its beliefs. Instead, it turned into a conventional, joke-oriented show.

The family in "Roc" has the potential to show that variety in a much more realistic, less-caricatured fashion, letting a white-dominated America understand the diversity of the country's black citizens.

Welcome, "Roc." Take a seat on a marble step and stay for awhile.

"Roc"

*** A new sitcom set in Baltimore focuses on the contrasting beliefs within the family of a career garbage man.

CAST: Charles Dutton, Ella Joyce, Rocky Carroll, Carl Gordon.

TIME: Pilot on Sunday at 7:30 and Thursday at 8:30, then Sundays at 8:30

.` CHANNEL: Fox Channel 45 (WBFF)

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