Fall TV shows address L.A. riots

August 28, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD — Ladies and gentlemen, coming to your living room this fall . . . the Los Angeles Riots!

Television viewers will soon be treated to a heaping dose of turmoil on the tube, courtesy of several veteran drama and comedy shows that will be using the unrest in Los Angeles as a backdrop for their fictional characters.

In addition to NBC's "A Different World," which has completed a two-part episode re-creating the riots, plot lines dealing with the unrest and the aftermath will be featured in early season episodes of ABC's "Doogie Howser, M.D," NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and "L.A. Law," and CBS' "Knots Landing."

* Doogie Howser will be confronted with his own social unawareness when the emergency room at the hospital where he works is suddenly filled with riot victims in the Sept. 23 season-opener.

* The family in "Fresh Prince" returns to its South-Central Los fTC Angeles neighborhood to help clean up, and find they must confront their physical and philosophical distance from their roots in the Sept. 21 episode.

* In November, Gregory Sumner, the ruthless corporate magnate played by William Devane in "Knots Landing," will head up the corporate division of the fictional L.A. Task Force, an organization modeled after Rebuild L.A., the group created by Mayor Tom Bradley to guide the city's revitalization in the wake of the riots.

* Also on "Knots Landing," Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford) will oversee construction of a community sports center proposed by some former baseball players for one of the riot-damaged neighborhoods.

The ramifications of the riots will resonate throughout the lives of the characters of "L.A. Law," although show executives declined to give details. "We like to surprise our audience," said co-executive producer John Tinker.

Program executives all denied that they were trivializing or exploiting the riots for ratings.

Because all of the shows except "A Different World" are set in Los Angeles, the producers said that they believed it was inevitable that their characters would have to respond to the riots' effects and question their own social commitment.

"Because our show is about an affluent black family, they should not act like the riots didn't happen," said Winifred Hervey-Stallworth, co-executive producer of "Fresh Prince."

"But we didn't want to trivialize or editorialize," she added. "We tried to take a positive look at the aftermath, and inject some humor into the situation."

Barbara Corday, co-executive producer of "Knots Landing," warned that prime-time entertainment shows should be sensitive when incorporating the unrest into their plot lines.

"You just can't use people's lives and tragedies as fodder unless you have a point to make," she said. "There's a certain responsibility when we speak to millions of people each week to be about something."

The point of the "Knots Landing" story lines, which will start a few weeks after the Oct. 29 season-opener, will be that the private sector has to become involved in the rebuilding effort, Ms. Corday said. "We're saying to our audience all around the country: 'Get involved.' "

While making their points, the story lines will still mix messages with entertainment -- a requirement that has resulted in some uneasiness among television insiders.

Vic Rauseo, co-executive producer of "Doogie Howser," said there was skepticism by executives and writers at Steven Bochco Productions, which makes the series, and by an ABC executive on whether the comedy should tackle the riots.

"They felt it was too big an issue for a comedy show to take on," Mr. Rauseo said. "They said it would turn people off because they turned to our show so that they can laugh. But once they read the script, they saw the potential."

In the riot-related episode of "Fresh Prince," all the characters -- particularly wealthy attorney Phillip Banks (James Avery) and his professor-wife, Vivian (Janet Hubert-Whitten) -- realize they must become more involved after they return to their old neighborhood that has been ravaged by the riots to join in the clean-up effort.

"They come upon the place they lived before they started to do very well and moved away," said Ms. Hervey-Stallworth. "Phillip and Vivian realize that they have not only moved away economically and physically, but also philosophically and morally."

The episode will also show a flashback in which the show's central character, Will (Will Smith), says that he will never turn his back on his community. "We show that he has not lived up to that responsibility," Ms. Hervey-Stallworth said. "Like other young people, he's grown more apathetic as he's grown older.

"They all find they need to feel a responsibility for other people. Maybe someone watching will have the same sort of realization."

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