JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The doorbell rings at the home of Madam Gwen, but Eve, the black maid, refuses to answer it. This act of defiance spells trouble for plump and proper Madam, who idles away her day while her domestic servants do all the chores.
Madam reluctantly pulls herself up from the sofa and opens the door.
"I don't think I've ever seen you answer the door before," says the startled visitor, a neighbor.
"I wouldn't let Eve have time off to see her Uncle Joe, so now she's getting back at me," says Madam.
"By making you answer the door?"
"Forget about the door. She's protesting by not doing her work. She's on a go-slow."
"A go-slow? How slow is she going to go?"
Eve enters from the kitchen, walking at an exaggeratedly slow pace as if her feet are stuck in glue. She delivers tea to a displeased Madam and her guest. The laugh track roars.
"Well, at least she made you tea," says the visitor.
"I asked her last night," Madam says wryly. More laugh track.
So goes the first episode of "Madam & Eve," the newest South African sitcom to hit television screens. Based on a popular comic strip of the same name, "Madam & Eve" explores the awkward relationship between a wealthy white woman and her black maid as they try to make their way in post-apartheid South Africa.
Before the 30-minute episode is over, Eve cleverly turns the madam-maid relationship on its head. She takes over the house for a party, her friends get Madam drunk on African home-brewed beer, and she and Madam dance together as if they are the best of friends.
Signs of political and social change are everywhere in the new South Africa, but there are few places like television to understand how South Africans see themselves - or would like to see themselves - in this uncertain period of transition. Under apartheid, a show such as "Madam & Eve" would have had no chance of getting on the air. But since the democratic elections in 1994, television producers are turning to multiracial sitcoms as an entertaining way to wrestle with the country's uncomfortable past and perhaps show a path to the future.
"South Africans are very loyal to local programs. They want to look at South African life comically," says Deva Britow, the executive producer for "Madam & Eve," which airs on South Africa's only free independent station, e-TV. "South Africans like to laugh. They like to laugh at themselves."
But behind the laughter, the show delivers its share of social commentary. The day the first episode of "Madam & Eve" aired this month, for instance, the Star, Johannesburg's largest daily newspaper, ran a story on overworked, underpaid domestic workers along with a photo of the "Madam and Eve" characters. The newspaper also printed the country's basic conditions of employment act, reminding all the nation's Madams that their Eves are entitled to vacation, sick leave and severance packages.
Britow says she is expecting a lot of discussion when, in an upcoming episode, Madam's son starts dating a black woman. His shocked mother will be forced to confront her racism and in turn her relationship with Eve.
"Madam cannot bring herself to say the word `black,'" says Britow. "But in actual fact, Madam is extremely fond of Eve. They have a real close relationship. They are friends, but because of her upbringing and years of white influence, she has a hard time having a black friend."
"Madam & Eve" builds on other post-apartheid sitcoms that don't blink at racial humor. "Suburban Bliss," a wildly popular sitcom about a black family from Soweto moving into an affluent white Johannesburg suburb, was a breakthrough for television viewers. So was "Going Up," a show about events occurring in a small established law firm in downtown Johannesburg and a "shebeen," a black tavern, located atop the same office building.
Many of these comedies are cast in the mold of "All in the Family," the 1970s American sitcom featuring Archie Bunker, a racist grouch whose attitudes are constantly made to look ridiculous as he confronts his family and the world.
"Instead of bigotry winning out, solutions are found," says Keyan Tomaselli, a media studies professor at the University of Natal-Durban. In South Africa, sitcoms are "an easy way to deal with social and interracial issues," he says.
Sitcoms are allowed to play with cultural stereotypes, such as the rich madam, the poor maid, the old racist Afrikaner, the Zulu grandmother, freeing the show's writers and viewers to explore the contradictions and complexities of South Africa today, he says. What sets South African television apart from its American and British counterparts is that by law, all shows must include as many of the country's 11 official languages as possible.