There's some promise in the premise of Fox's 'Living Single'

TELEVISION PREVIEW

August 22, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Labor Day is still two weeks away, but the new fall season starts tonight on Fox with the return of "Martin" and the arrival of "Living Single," starring Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Kim Fields and Erika Alexander.

"Living Single," a sitcom about four young women living in Brooklyn, is the first of 34 new network series that will be premiering this fall. Fox is jump-starting its season in hopes of giving viewers a full look at the series before they're deluged with too many new shows to sample come September.

The pilot is a bumpy ride -- overly broad 2,7l one minute, trying for intimacy the next, often with no bridge in between. And the characters are one-dimensional. Latifah is the den mother. Coles is naive going on ditsy. Fields is the social climber. And Alexander is somewhere between liberated and down on men.

But it's loaded with potential. In fact, "Living Single" has so much potential it could be a sleeper hit.

It is, at any rate, a good way to get a peek at the new season. Living Single" is a window on Fox's programming strategy for Television '93-'94.

* Demographics: The characters of the sitcom are twentysomething, single, African-American professionals.

Khadijah James (Latifah) is a hard-driving entrepreneur starting a magazine for African-American readers. Synclaire James, Khadijah's cousin (Coles), works for the magazine. Maxine Shaw (Alexander) is an attorney. The profession of Regine Hunter, the character played by Fields, isn't specified.

Such young, single, upwardly mobile African Americans are exactly the kind of viewers many advertisers want but aren't sure how to reach on network TV.

"Living Single" is the kind of show that has made Fox No. 1 with young black viewers.

* Scheduling: "Martin" was one of only two rookie shows on any network last year that could be considered a hit. (CBS' "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" was the other.) "Martin" achieved its success by scoring first with young black viewers, and then crossing over.

"Living Single" will follow "Martin" at 8:30 Sunday nights on WBFF (Channel 45).

Many believe scheduling is the single most important factor in the making of a hit show. "Living Single" has one of the best spots on all of network television, between "Martin" and "Married . . . With Children."

* Themes: The pilot is about Regine falling for a rich, handsome man who she thinks is going to be her ticket to happily-ever-after. But the man is married and not likely to leave his wife for Regine.

While Regine's gold-digging is overplayed, the premise makes for some savvy commentary on gender and the roles of women:

"Why does this keep happening to me?" Regine wonders aloud after she finds out that the man is married.

"Because you keep looking for someone to carry you," Maxine says.

"What's wrong with that?" Regine replies.

"Because they keep dropping [you]," Khadijah says.

During a group discussion of gender, Synclaire tries to put in a good word for men by saying, "Did you ever wonder what the world would be like without men?"

"Yeah, a bunch of fat, happy women with no crime," Khadijah says.

Lines like those have led some critics to call the series a black "Designing Women."

I would rather think that "Living Single" has the potential to be a TV sitcom version of Terry McMillan's best-selling novel "Waiting to Exhale." A series that achieves even part of the insight of the book about four African-American women "waiting for that man who will take their breath away," in the author's words, will be a welcome and valuable addition to the network landscape.

It is, at any rate, one of the only TV series with an African-American woman as executive producer, Yvette Denise Lee, who formerly produced "A Different World" and "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper."

* New stars: These are four very talented actresses. Coles is one of the best physical comedians on television.

But it's Latifah who gets most of the best lines and commands viewer attention with her presence.

As an actress, Latifah is a little tight and tense in a couple of key moments during the pilot. But television is more presence than acting. Latifah could just be the next Roseanne -- a blunt, no-nonsense persona on-screen and off who says in a humorous way what many viewers are thinking.

Fox is smart to try to separate "Living Single" from the new-season clutter with an early launch.

For one thing, the overwhelming majority of TV critics are white, middle-aged men (this writer included) whose culture is likely to limit their understanding and appreciation of a twentysomething, female, African-American sensibility. For the most part, critics are probably not going to lead viewers to this show.

The pilot of "Living Single" is more promise than payoff. But the promise is worth a second look in coming weeks, along with the hope that there's a place for young, black women to talk smart and crack wise on prime-time TV.

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