'Roc,' sitcom beginning tonight, affirms hard work, hope and family

IT'S BLACK, IT'S BALTIMORE, AND IT'S UNIVERSAL

August 25, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Roc" is a new Fox Television sitcom featuring black characters living a blue-collar life in Baltimore.

But don't make the mistake of thinking of "Roc" only as a black, or blue-collar, sitcom. The pilot for the series, which airs at 7:30 tonight on WBFF-TV (Channel 45), is one of the most finely crafted shows in the history of television.

That's right, the history of television.

In tonight's episode, "Roc" transcends its particulars of class and race to plug into universal aspirations of upward mobility and our shared values concerning the importance of hard work, hope and family support in moving up the economic ladder.

The kitchen scenes in "Roc" will take you straight back to the Kramdens' world of "The Honeymooners," a world spare in furnishings but rich in dreams. The speeches in "Roc" are Horatio Alger by way of Arthur Miller. And all is done in such a graceful and funny way that you won't even feel the spoonful of sociology going down.

As most Baltimore readers probably know by now, the show stars Baltimore's Charles Dutton as Roc Emerson, a Baltimore sanitation worker. The character is based on a real city sanitation worker, John Wood.

Roc is also Dutton's real-life nickname. And Dutton's real life is, well, an odyssey that gives new meaning to Joseph Campbell's notion of the hero quest: from the streets of Baltimore to the Maryland State Penitentiary for manslaughter to Yale's drama school and Broadway stardom in "The Piano Lesson." And, now, the best-looking comedy of the new season.

The physical universe of "Roc" is not much larger than that of "The Honeymooners" in tonight's premiere. Instead of just one room, there are two, with all the action taking place in the living room and kitchen of Roc's row house.

Roc shares the tiny home with his wife, Eleanor (Ella Joyce), his father, Andrew (Carl Gordon) and his brother, Joey (Rocky Carroll). Eleanor is a nurse who works nights. Joey is a jazz musician who is not getting much work. Andrew is retired.

The house is furnished with discards Roc found in other peoples' garbage, but that's no source of shame here. Roc is proud of his penny-wise ways and the $6,000 he and Eleanor have saved by using recyled appliances, reading yesterday's USA Today, never buying anything that isn't on sale and often going without. All of this is summarized and given an emotional edge in speech Roc makes about his "dream":

"In a few more years, we'll have a semidetached house. I've never lived in a home with a wall with no one on the other side of it."

That's one of the things that makes this such a terrific pilot: the speeches.

Part of the reason for that, of course, is the talent of writer Stan Daniels, who wrote and produced the "Mary Tyler Moore Show." Daniels repeats himself a bit tonight. At one emotional high point, Roc, Joey and their father cluster together in a hug huddle that looks a lot like the newsroom scene the night Mary Richards said goodbye forever. But watching Daniels repeat himself is like watching Nolan Ryan throw another no-hitter. Yeah, we saw it before, but it's still a thrill. And listen to the echoes of Martin Luther King when Eleanor begins her big speech by savoring the words "How long . . ."

That's the other thing that makes this show sing: the acting. Everyone here, except Joyce, was in the cast of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Piano Lesson"; they all do so many things you almost never see elsewhere on TV that you could watch tonight's show over and over and find delicious bits of acting business each time.

Watch, for example, the way Dutton literally skips from the kitchen to the living room as he takes Joey on tour of all the things he has rescued from the rubbish. It's a subtlety that makes all the difference in the world, suggesting the joy, vitality and the little boy hidden within the hulking frame of this man who measures his life in emptied garbage cans. It's also the kind of movement that recalls Jackie Gleason. And watch Dutton's facial expression when he's being smug about his middle-class values: straight Stan Laurel.

The greatest thing about this pilot is that in just 22 minutes it makes you feel something very real for Roc and the other Emersons. What some viewers will feel is a warmth and connection to folks they may have thought they had nothing in common with.

* Some people call that art.

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