'South Central' is poignant mix of drama, humor

April 05, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

A girl asks her mom for a new jacket. Mom says no, because mom hasn't got any money.

"Fine, I'll just ask my dad then," the girl says angrily.

"Fine," mom replies, "now all you've got to do is find his [expletive deleted]."

Welcome to "South Central," the new half-hour comedy from Fox that premieres at 8 tonight on WBFF-Channel 45.

In a number of ways, it marks how far we've come in TV-America from the land of the Cleavers -- where June's harshest expression was, "Beaver, you just wait until your father gets home."

Joan Mosley (Tina Lifford), the mom in "South Central," uses a lot of language like the kind just quoted. Don't allow yourself to react in a knee-jerk, negative way to it -- no matter how harsh it might sound at first.

"South Central" is one of the few network comedies this year worth getting excited about. And, if you push yourself past some of the differences of race and social class that you might have with these characters, you're going to find it's filled with viewing pleasures.

The first thing you should know is that it's not a yuk-yuk-yuk sitcom. It's closer to the formula called dramedy, which was used to describe shows in 1987-88, such as "Frank's Place" and "Slap Maxwell." It's a drama with laughs.

The drama centers around the single-parent struggles of Mosley to raise her three children in South Central, the part of Los Angeles that came to national attention during the riots two years ago.

Tonight's pilot finds her laid-off from the $26,000-a-year secretarial job she had held for 12 years with the school district. She's hurting financially and emotionally and has a hard time finding the strength to go on.

There's also drama in her relationship with her teen-age son, Andre (Larenz Tate). Andre wants a beeper, a demand that reopens a wound in her heart that she thought had started to heal. The wound is for her dead teen-age son, Marcus, who was killed by a gang member.

Somehow, in the midst of such harsh reality, there's humor, too.

Here's Andre at breakfast bickering with his younger sister, Tasha (Tasha Scott):

"You know, Tasha, you're always down on the brother. That's why you never have any dates."

"Man, I don't want any dates with any Nintendo-playing, trash-talking, pants-hanging-off-the-butt underachiever such as yourself," Tasha says.

"I don't play Nintendo," Andre says proudly.

Mainly, though, there's love in the Mosley household -- real, believable love of one family member for another. There is something touching about the final scene, of Mosley sitting on the couch hugging her kids as they watch TV.

Maybe what makes that scene special is that the pilot had dared to introduce the notion of death being just outside the apartment door, as well as allowing the leading character to flirt with despair. Despair is something you almost never see in a network comedy, even "Roseanne."

Because of that realism, you have a sense of what a victory it is some nights for some people to make it home to safe harbor on the couch with the kids in front of the TV.

More good news: "Roc" returns after a month's absence to the Fox schedule at 8:30 tonight, after "South Central."

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