UPN's 'Pfeiffer' isn't pfunny Preview: New sitcom about a free black working for Lincoln stirs up protests and maybe some sociological thoughts, but few laughs.

October 05, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

As entertainment, UPN's "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" is a stupid, little, one-joke sitcom that normally would have been among the first of the new network series to be canceled and forgotten.

But protests against the series the last two weeks have made it into a stupid, little, one-joke sitcom that is garnering more pre-air publicity than almost any other new series this fall. Suddenly, the sociology of "Desmond Pfeiffer" matters.

At issue is the question of how slavery is depicted in prime time, which is certainly an important matter. Except the series itself has almost nothing to say on the subject and does not show any slaves in the first or second episodes that I have seen.

"The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" stars Chi McBride as an English nobleman of Moorish descent who comes to the United States to escape a gambling debt and winds up as butler and confidant to President Lincoln during the time of the Civil War. Pfeiffer is black, but he is not a slave. The nearest thing to a slave in the first two episodes is Pfeiffer's indentured servant, Niblet (Max Baker), who is white.

There are two direct references to slavery in the pilot episode, which had been scheduled to air tonight. Lincoln's chief of staff sees Pfeiffer sitting in the White House kitchen with his feet up on a table.

"The slaves haven't been emancipated yet. Get your feet off the table, Pfeiffer," he says.

Pfeiffer's response: "It's P-Feiffer. The 'P' isn't silent."

This P-Feiffer business, by the way, is what is supposed to pass for humor in this sad-sack series. Every time Pfeiffer says it, the laugh track is cranked up into the red zone.

Later in the pilot, the sitcom's sex-crazed, knucklehead version of Lincoln (Dann Florek) says: "Desmond, being here with you like this, I realize more than ever it is not right for one man to own another. Slavery is going to be abolished. And I will call it Amendment B37-11."

"Or, you could call it the Emancipation Proclamation," Pfeiffer says.

"Catchy, I like it," says Lincoln.

The pilot, though, will not be seen tonight. Dean Valentine, the CEO of UPN, pulled it last week, saying he was doing so as a "signal" to African-Americans "that we are listening and we care" to what is being said about the show, even though he stressed UPN does not agree with allegations that the series is racist.

UPN, which carries such shows as "Moesha" and "Malcolm and Eddie," can ill-afford to anger black viewers. While it has the smallest audience among the six broadcast networks, it also has the highest percentage of black viewership. As the WB network gains with such hits as "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity," UPN's prospects for survival worsen.

Valentine's peace offering, which the protesters have rejected, means that instead of seeing the pilot tonight, viewers will see the second episode of the season, titled "AOL: Abe Online." It centers on Lincoln having "telegraph sex" from the Oval Office. In case you haven't figured it out by now, the one big joke in the show is supposed to be Lincoln as Bill Clinton committing adultery in the Oval Office with women less than half his age.

In fact, near the end of "AOL Abe" tonight, Pfeiffer will wonder about future inhabitants of the White House, as the screen fast-forwards to 1998 with a Hillary Clinton look-alike banging on the door of the Oval Office as a Bill Clinton sound-alike voice begs her not to come in. The implication is that he is in the middle of doing something he should not be doing with someone he should not be doing it with.

In case anyone doesn't get the dumbed-down joke, Pfeiffer tells the president, "You're acting no better than a horny hillbilly from Arkansas."

Again, as entertainment, it is about as funny as Pfeiffer constantly telling people, "It's P-Feiffer." I say it's pathetic.

But, as sociology, important questions about television, history and representations of ethnic identity have been raised in connection with the pre-air protests. Danny Bakewell, president for the Brotherhood Crusade, which has organized the protests in Los Angeles, says, "To take that period [slavery] and deal with it in any way that trivializes Africans being brought to America -- it's off-limits." He wants the show canceled.

Michael Johnson, who led a protest against the show in Baltimore last week at WTUP (Channel 24), agrees.

"The problem is the time period it covers -- a time when black folks were slaves," said Johnson, of Heritage Shadows of the Silver Screen Museum and Cinema in Baltimore.

Can you declare huge areas of history off-limits to humor? If so, who has the right? And, if Pfeiffer is identified as a nobleman who escapes to America to dodge a gambling debt in the text of the show, does the fact that he's black automatically call forth the issue of American slavery? Big questions with lots of room for disagreement.

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