The color of success

Can 'City of Angels' fly with the heavy scrutiny given to its African-American talent?


January 16, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

LOS ANGELES -- It would be nice if "City of Angels," a new CBS drama about an inner-city hospital, could debut tonight to the normal not-so-great expectations that meet most midseason series.

But that's not the culture we live in these days.

Because the show from Steven Bochco and Paris Barclay features more African-American talent in front and behind the cameras than any other series in the history of television, and because the networks have been under fire since July from the NAACP for their lack of diversity, "Angels" arrives enveloped in a discourse on race. And that discussion is full of all the contradictions, complexities and confusion that our society has on the matter.

While Vivica A. Fox, one of the show's African-American stars, pleaded with critics to "get beyond the color of our skin" in dealing with the series, Barclay, who is also African-American, stressed the percentages of African-American directors, writers and crew members in acknowledging the "historical significance" of "Angels." He said it was important for him to be a "bean counter" on ethnic percentages.

The one thing black and white producers, actors and network executives did agree on in press conferences and interviews here this week is that far more is at stake with "City of Angels" than just the success or failure of another midseason drama.

"Look, television is a copycat medium," said Leslie Moonves, the president and CEO of CBS Television. "There aren't four game shows on the air because we all came up simultaneously with what a great idea it is to put on a game show.

"So, the success or failure of 'City of Angels' will affect who puts on what and where. If 'City of Angels' hits, will there be more minority shows? Absolutely. If it fails, I don't know if it will kill the genre. But it will certainly set it back. And that's an unfortunate situation," Moonves concluded.

Bochco, the Hollywood producer who changed the face of prime-time drama 20 years ago with "Hill Street Blues," said, "I guess what we all hope is that we don't kind of get buried under the burden of our historical significance.

"We're making a show. We think it's a really good show. We think it's getting better by the day. And we hope, as we would hope with any show we're doing, to be given the time and the leeway both from the network and the audience, to grow and mature into the first-class series that we all believe this is capable of being," Bochco said.

Not an exceptional pilot

One of the things Bochco is trying to do with those words is lower expectations for the series, and he's right to do so. While tonight's pilot is a solid piece of work, in terms of drama, it's not exceptional.

The hour opens with a character played by Garrett Morris getting fired as medical director at Los Angeles County's Angels of Mercy Hospital when he's caught in the morgue posing for a picture with the corpse of a female R&B singer. Dr. Lillian Price (Fox), a hard-driving administrator bent on upgrading the chronically underfunded institution, replaces him.

The head of surgery at Angels of Mercy is Dr. Ben Turner (Blair Underwood). He's talented, devoted and steadfast in his battles with bureaucratic incompetence and the malaise of some co-workers. He and Price also happen to have a history, as they say.

Other key players are Michael Warren as Ron Harris, the hospital's chief executive, and Robert Morse as Edwin O'Malley, chairman of the board of supervisors, which determines funding for the hospital. O'Malley and Harris are the money men with whom Price must constantly bicker, battle and negotiate in her struggle to make Angels of Mercy a better hospital.

In tonight's pilot, a wrong patient is sent into surgery, while another one gets lost altogether. Both plots have been used before and better on "St. Elsewhere." In fact, minus the ethnic aspect, "City of Angels" looks more like a "St. Elsewhere" wannabe than anything else.

The pilot's main story line involves Price getting personally involved when an elderly woman, who is raising two grandchildren, refuses surgery that she desperately needs because she doesn't want to leave her grandchildren in the hands of social workers or foster parents. The last time that happened, one of the children was sexually abused.

But, no matter what the specifics of plot are, the main concern is almost always ethnicity. One of the very first scenes tonight features Turner and two residents, Dr. Wesley Williams (Hill Harper) and Dr. Geoffrey Weiss (Phil Buckman), talking to an elderly black patient about his coming surgery.

"You a Jew?" the man asks Weiss.

After Weiss says he is, the man calls him "Jew boy."

"I'm thinking of shaving my head so that my horns show. Clear up that Jew question once and for all," Weiss says angrily in the next scene as he and Williams, who is African-American, get into a heated discussion over race.

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