A contemporary classic, 'Roc' returns with love, laughs and dose of reality

TELEVISION PREVIEW

August 31, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"Roc" is back. And the opener to its third season is one of the finest single episodes of a sitcom that you will ever see.

Have you ever heard people talk about Jackie Gleason and "The Honeymooners" as a comedy classic?

"Roc" is the "The Honeymooners" of today. And Charles S. Dutton as Roc Emerson is every bit and then some what Gleason was as Ralph Kramden.

There are several key changes for "Roc" this year. There's a new time: 8 Tuesday nights on WBFF (Channel 45). The show is on tape instead of live. And, on-screen, they're adding a couple of kids to the Emerson household. Eleanor (Ella Joyce) is pregnant. And, in tonight's show, an 11-year-old girl is adopted.

Some background might be necessary for those who missed the powerful two-parter that ended 'Roc's" season in May. The 11-year-old, Sheila (Alexis Fields), is the daughter of Calvin (Heavy D). In last year's finale, Calvin shot and killed a drug dealer in Roc's Baltimore neighborhood.

Tonight, Calvin asks Roc if Sheila can live with the Emersons until he gets out of prison. Roc feels that they owe Calvin for trying to get drugs out of their neighborhood and reluctantly agrees.

If that sounds like heavy stuff for a sitcom, it is. And that's reason enough to treasure this series: It doesn't serve up comic stereotypes and go only for easy yuks.

But that doesn't mean it isn't funny. Like "The Honeymooners" or "M*A*S*H," you're laughing one minute and three minutes later you're wiping away a tear.

And just as with Ralph Kramden, much of the humor comes from Roc's relentless optimism and his efforts at upward mobility. This is a real blue-collar comedy, with economics and class lurking behind every punch line, as opposed to "Roseanne," where no one ever seems to feel a real financial pinch.

"Eleanor, we have to get on a budget here, if we're going to keep up this standard of living," Roc announces importantly at the start of tonight's show.

Eleanor looks at Pop (Carl Gordon) when Roc says "standard of living," and says, "Don't you touch that. Don't say anything."

Events throughout the rest of the episode, of course, unfold to totally undo any hope of staying on a budget, as the pregnant Eleanor announces she is going to quit her job and the Emersons are asked to take in "another mouth to feed" in the words of Roc.

But despite money problems, the Emersons do agree to take in Calvin's daughter. Now all they have to do is convince the girl that she should live with them instead of an aunt in Los Angeles. The girl is hurting because of what her father did, and wants to run away.

The astounding thing about "Roc" is the way it moves in 22 minutes from sitcom jokes to moments of touching and profound drama.

Watch Joyce and Fields play it sitcom light when Eleanor asks Sheila if she's sure she wants to go to Los Angeles.

"Sure, Baltimore's over," the girl says. "I've seen the Aquarium. I've eaten a crab cake. What's left?'

Then watch Joyce a few moments later in a scene featuring a family powwow around the kitchen table. And watch Dutton and Fields in the big dramatic scene they play together in a convenience store near the end of the half-hour. The acting is a good as anything you'll see anywhere on TV. And Dutton will make you care about that little girl like you never thought you would.

"Seinfeld" is a terrific sitcom. But "Seinfeld" deals with topics like not be able to find a parking space, and the sitcom seldom gets much heavier.

"Roc," meanwhile, takes the risk of trying to deal comically and dramatically with topics like drugs, prison and troubled kids.

Here's a vote for "Roc" as one of the five best sitcoms on TV. And it's great to have it back.

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