Rigid color lines define 'The Show' TV preview: Racial gap stars in new Fox comedy about a 'corny white guy' working on a black sitcom.

March 16, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Midseason is supposed to be a time for taking risks in network television, and Fox does just that with "The Show," a sitcom about race premiering at 8: 30 tomorrow night on WBFF (Channel 45).

"The Show" stars Sam Seder as Tom Delaney, a white comedy writer who quits his job with Jay Leno's "Tonight" show to become head writer for "The Wilson Lee Show," a black sitcom. As the Fox promotional campaign puts it, "The hippest comedian in America just hired the whitest writer in Hollywood."

When Delaney tells his wife, Allison (Eliza Coyle) about his new job, she worries about his ability to work for Lee (Mystro Clark).

"You're the guy on 'Def Jam' who they pull out of the audience to make fun of," she tells her husband, "the corny white guy in the white shirt."

At the office, Delaney is called "Pillsbury Doughboy" and "punk" by members of Lee's entourage during his first day on the job. He's also challenged by one of the black writers, Devon Griffin (Shaun Baker), to defend such all-white sitcoms as NBC's "Friends."

"You tell me how they can find a monkey in New York City, but they can't find a black friend to hang out with," Griffin says. "What's that all about anyway, huh?"

The question Delaney wants answered is why he was ever hired by Lee in the first place.

"Your work appeals to young white males a desirable demographic," Lee says matter-of-factly.

Delaney, in his eagerness to succeed on a job that pays twice what he was earning with Leno, ignores most of the putdowns until Lee calls him a racist. That's when he gets angry. It's also, not coincidentally, when the sitcom starts to founder.

"The Show" shows considerable promise in its back-and-forth, black-and- white sparring across what's often termed "the racial divide." But when it gets to the requisite scene near the end of each episode the point at which the bubble of comic tension is supposed to be pricked and then followed with hugs and kisses all around "The Show" doesn't know where to go.

When one character starts his big speech saying, "We all know this black and white thing is a time bomb just waiting to go off," you almost expect it to be followed by Rodney King's coming onstage asking if we all can't just get along.

As Tom Fontana, an executive producer of NBC's "Homicide," said in a January interview with The Sun, race is too complex an issue to have any satisfactory resolution from two characters simply hugging each other at the end of a weekly TV episode.

Still, "The Show" is an important project worth paying attention to as part of our prime-time discourse on race, which may just be the big story of the television season. Its creator, John Bowman, is writing from experience. Bowman, who is white, was head writer for "In Living Color" and co-creator and producer for "Martin." He won NAACP Image Awards for his work on both those series.

And, with its great time slot after "The Simpsons," it just may have a sizable audience to whom it can make its point.

Can "The Show" go beyond its black-and-white, hip-and-square premise? Will the characters ever be defined by more than the color of their skin? Can it find a way to talk about race within the generic confines of the sitcom without papering over differences?

Such questions indicate the huge challenge ahead if "The Show" is ultimately going to enlighten rather than exploit its audience.

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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