"So, when was your last HIV test?"
-- Natalie (played by Melissa DeSousa) in the UPN sitcom One on One
On the same early December day that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley declared a "state of emergency" in the battle against HIV / AIDS, a group of Hollywood writers and producers finalized the script for a prime-time television show set in Baltimore that treats the HIV / AIDS crisis as an integral fact of life.
You could call it art imitating life. But forget about art. This is television as a social force for the good: Producers -- in this case, of a sitcom that is often described as silly -- exhibiting conscience and using their series to tackle a stark reality.
Called One on One, the UPN series airs Monday nights at 8:30 in a lineup of sitcoms featuring African-American casts. It stars Flex Alexander as Mark "Flex" Washington, a 33-year-old Baltimore sportscaster and single dad to a teen-age daughter, Breanna (played by Kyla Pratt).
Last fall, in only its second season, One on One became the most popular series on television among African-American viewers. The AIDS episode, which is titled "The Test" and will air Feb. 10, is risky business for a show that became No. 1 by "keeping it light," in the words of Alexander.
"You know, there is always a worry when you do what's called 'a very special episode.' We're constantly warned about being too preachy, [we're told] that people don't want to be preached to," said Eunetta T. Boone, co-executive-producer and creator of One on One.
"But at the same time, you have to have a relatability factor, you have to find a way to feel real. I try to limit my number of 'very special episodes.' But what I said to my people is, 'This episode about AIDS is a very, very special episode.' And, in that case, it is something we just have to do," she said last week in a telephone interview from her Hollywood office.
The 47-year-old producer, who is a former Baltimore Evening Sun sportswriter, said that she felt compelled to address the issue in part because of the reality of the city in which the fictional series is set.
"I don't think you can be an African-American show and not take on the issue of AIDS, especially an African-American show set in a city like Baltimore," Boone said, citing statistics that show the city with one of the heaviest caseloads nationally of people living with HIV or AIDS (12,000 people in the year 2000 with African-Americans accounting for about 85 percent of that figure).
But One on One producers have been touched personally by the AIDS crisis. Alexander lost a brother to AIDS. And Boone lost "two male friends, a girlfriend and a cousin to this epidemic." Two of the supporting characters in the series are named in honor of Alexander's brother and one of Boone's late friends.
One on One's "very, very special" episode centers on Flex and his latest romantic interest, Natalie (Melissa DeSousa), as he attempts to make love to her for the first time -- and she stops him cold by asking when he had his last HIV test.
He admits he's never been tested and defends his action by saying, "Look, do you take a driver's test every time you get in your car? I'm healthy and I've always practiced safe sex."
"Flex, before we have sex, I need you to get tested. ... And I'm going to want to see the results," Natalie says in the final version of the script made available to The Sun.
The two scenes that give the best sense of how HIV / AIDS awareness plays out in the episode are set in the barbershop and doctor's office, two locations crucial to the way masculinity is depicted in the series.
At the barbershop, after a bit of talk about the Washington Wizards, Flex blurts out that Natalie has foreclosed the possibility of sex until he has an HIV test. He seems embarrassed.
"Flex, you don't have to be ashamed. I get a test every six months, or every 2,000 miles, just like an oil change," responds Candy the manicurist.
"Well, as a gambling man, I've studied the stats. The odds of me catching the big 'A' are very slim because I am a non-drug-using, extra-heterosexual brother," says Walt, one of the hair stylists.
"You? I'm so straight, I don't make left turns," a hair stylist named Malik adds. "But Flex, my brother, I, too, have been tested. Magic Johnson proved that all players can be at risk."
"That's right, boys, men can get it from women, too. So you hetero fellas can go straight to dead if you're not careful," says Candy.
The messages about responsibility, masculinity and health are reinforced at the doctor's office the next day when the doctor says he wants to discuss Flex's "risk level," and Flex replies: "There is none. I look good and I feel better."
"Well, one in three people who have HIV don't know it," the doctor says. "It's now the leading cause of death for African-Americans ages 25 to 44. ... HIV is on the rise globally. Two out of five new HIV cases are from heterosexual transmission. How many sex partners have you had?"