Too stark for network TV, BET airs 'lost' 'Roc' show

October 28, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Just when you think the television gods have no mercy, along comes news that Black Entertainment Television has found a never-before-seen episode of "Roc" and is going to air it tonight.

"The Roc That Dreams Are Made Of" will air at 8 tonight on cable channel BET, and you don't want to miss it. The episode not only contains some of the finest acting you'll see on television this season, it will also remind you of what greatness is possible in the seemingly simple half-hour sitcom when people of talent care.

While the title says "dreams," the episode is really about nightmares. It opens with Eleanor (Ella Joyce) waking up the Emerson rowhouse in west Baltimore with her cries.

Roc (Charles Dutton), Joey (Rocky Carroll) and Pop (Carl Gordon) gather in the kitchen and try to get Eleanor to talk about her nightmare. At first, she won't.

So, each of the three Emerson men takes a turn telling his worst nightmare. Pop's is connected to growing old. Joey's nightmare is related to his musical career. I won't tell you what Roc's is. But Dutton does about six minutes standing in a spotlight on a darkened stage reliving Roc's worst nightmare, and it is the stuff of Tony Awards. Yes, Tony, not Emmy. This is the kind of performance you pay $75 to see at a New York theater.

So, if it's so great why didn't Fox air it during the three years that "Roc" was a weekly feature on Rupert Murdoch's fourth network?

Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for BET, said, "It didn't air because Fox chose not to air it. It's that simple." Fox officials declined comment, but a source familiar with the production says Fox thought the episode was "too downbeat" and that the "subject matter was a little touchy."

It is downbeat -- the same way "Death of a Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" are downbeat. The subject matter is touchy. One nightmare deals, responsibly, with the sexual exploitation of a child.

The sad thing is that Fox is supposed to be the network that's "daring" and "on the edge." On the edge, as long as it doesn't deal with anything that might be downbeat.

Advertisers don't like downbeat, and because of that we don't talk about nightmares on network television. Instead, we hear talk about dreams -- dreams of owning a bigger car, dreams of owning a lawn mower you can ride, dreams of having skin like Jaclyn Smith, which can only be provided by the beauty products on TV.

Yes, I am getting mad. I'm mad because this "lost" episode of "Roc" forces me to think about how great television could be if it chose to speak to our souls every once in a while instead of our pocketbooks. This episode is about a dark night of the soul in the Emerson household; when you see it, it makes you feel like you're not alone in this big, scary world.

It's sad about Fox and the other networks not having a place for that kind of television, but let's be glad about BET.

The cable channel picked up "Roc" in reruns after Fox canceled the series in May; it's been running the episodes weeknights at 8, with repeats at 11 p.m. and 9 a.m., since Sept. 26.

It's not the first-run, prime-time, network showcase Dutton wanted for "Roc."

But it's still nice there's a world of cable television with niche programmers like BET that can provide a rerun home for the hard-working garbage man from Baltimore -- and surprise us every now and then with a gem like tonight's lost episode.

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