Black and White TV Race and drama: Network television, so often derided as superficial entertainment, is providing reasoned, dramatic discourse on racial issues nearly every night on some of prime time's best programs.

January 30, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Prime-time network television is not the place you might expect to find a serious discussion of race -- especially during a season drowning in sitcoms about young friends.

But, contrary to notions of network entertainment as essential mindlessness, an informed and highly charged discourse on ethnicity, power and race is now taking place every weeknight on ABC, CBS, NBC and even Fox.

To an extent without precedent, millions of Americans are bearing witness nightly to symbolic representations of some of their deepest feelings on one of the deepest issues in the national psyche. As make-believe characters meet real-world attitudes on matters black and white, the point where they intersect is becoming a socially relevant, resonant and red-hot spot in American popular culture.

The forum consists of those programs regularly referred to as "quality, adult drama." All are about doctors or cops, and all but one air at 10 p.m. weeknights -- the time when most adults are watching and the greatest latitude is given for subject matter and treatment.

Monday it's "Chicago Hope" on CBS, Tuesday "NYPD Blue" on ABC, Wednesday "Law & Order" on NBC, Thursday "ER" on NBC and "New York Undercover" on Fox, and Friday "Homicide: Life on the Street" on NBC. Three of the series -- "Chicago Hope," "NYPD Blue" and "ER" -- are among the 20 most-watched TV shows with weekly audiences of at least 30 million.

Hardly a week has gone by this year when one of the six series has not had a major storyline involving race.

One week on "Chicago Hope," the white Dr. Diane Grad (Jayne Brook) and the black Dr. Dennis Hancock (Vondie Curtis-Hall) had an emotional confrontation about race after she tells a black teen-age patient who had shot her friend that she hopes the teen dies. Then on "Homicide," black detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and white detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) have an equally emotional confrontation over the shooting of a black youth by Bayliss' cousin (David Morse). And on "ER," another tense scene results when a white para-medic ("Shep" as portrayed by Ron Eldard) makes a negative remark about blacks, and a black nurse ("Malik," played by rapper Deezer D.) takes offense.

Probably the most talked-about episode came two weeks ago on "NYPD Blue" when white detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) used the "n" word while arresting a black man, drawing the wrath of his black supervisor, Lt. Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel). The show crackled with the intensity of the ethnic baggage both characters carry, as well as with the dynamics of power, anger and resentment involved in their squad-room relationship.

And more such episodes are on the way. Next week in two compelling crossover episodes of "Law & Order" and "Homicide," Pembleton winds up face to face in "the box" with the leader of a white supremacist group responsible for the murder of six blacks at a Baltimore church and 20 blacks on a New York subway train. Both episodes are all about race, with a closing argument Feb. 7 from assistant district attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) connecting the show's fictional trial to the real-world trial of O.J. Simpson.

"It does seem as if there's more discussion of race on television these days, and I think one of the reasons behind it could involve what's happened with the O.J. Simpson case," says Terry Williams, a sociologist and MacArthur Foundation grant recipient who teaches courses on race and media at the New School for Social Research in New York City. "Ultimately, though, I think the reasons for the discussion are a lot more complicated than just O.J. Simpson."

The hypothesis behind Simpson-as-explanation is that Hollywood producers and writers, many of whom are neighbors of Simpson's in Brentwood, were watching and thinking a lot about the trial as it unfolded. So, it's not surprising that its theme of a nation divided and the ensuing viewer appeal should find their way into scripts this season.

"I guess you can use O.J. as the cause of this, but then you would still be left having to explain O.J. [the phenomenon]," says Sheri Parks, who teaches courses on television, race and gender at the University of Maryland College Park.

Theories

The producers and stars have their own explanations and theories for the stepped-up discussion of race in their shows.

Dick Wolf, the executive producer of "Law & Order" and "New York Undercover," feels that taken together the six series make for nothing less than a "golden age" of television drama, and that the competition among them "has raised the bar" in terms of excellence and social relevance. Such relevance is simply impossible without talking about race, Wolf says.

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