`Whoopi': `So far, so good'

NBC sitcom mixes humor and politics

February 24, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Stories about performers who risk controversy and reach for the edge on network television seldom end happily.

"But, so far, so good," says Whoopi Goldberg of her experience as star and executive producer of Whoopi, a multi-ethnic and politically charged NBC sitcom that dares to tackle issues and attitudes that even cable TV avoids.

The show, which airs tonight at 8, features Goldberg as Mavis Rae, a cranky, chain-smoking owner of a small Manhattan hotel who speaks her mind whether discussing President Bush, her Iranian concierge (Omid Djalili), her Republican brother (Wren T. Brown) or his white girlfriend (Elizabeth Regen).

The creative freedom that NBC has allowed Goldberg, one of the rare performers to have won Tony, Emmy, Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy awards, is one of the more encouraging developments in a network television season without much to cheer. News of this kind of support - because it involves harmony instead of the typical Hollywood strife - tends to be under-reported.

"I'm having fun," said Goldberg. "It's a demanding role - being Mavis every week. But I can do it, because we don't have the tension that usually comes when you're doing the kind of stuff we're doing. ... The lack of tension energizes you."

Goldberg does seem everywhere these days - whether appearing in television commercials as the new Slim-Fast spokeswoman or waving the green flag earlier this month at the Daytona 500 auto race. She will appear tomorrow night at Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (part of The Sun's Smart Talk women's lecture series).

"I'm just so glad we're being accommodated by NBC and allowed to talk about the stuff I want to talk about in Whoopi. That kind of support can help motivate you to do your best stuff," she said.

An episode titled, "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy" that aired last October exemplifies what Goldberg means by "best stuff." Its storyline involves a visit by President Bush to the Manhattan neighborhood in which Rae's hotel is located.

"Why's he coming here? Did they open a Hooters on the corner?" Rae asks sarcastically when told of his visit.

Her brother suggests she show some respect: "He is, after all, the president."

"According to whose ballot box?" she replies.

When her brother accuses Rae of being hopelessly biased in favor of former President Bill Clinton, she retorts: "Listen, Bill Clinton was the first president that even had a hint of color. He hung out in Harlem, played the saxophone and when you touch that hair, it has a little bit of texture."

Some might take offense at such humor, but no one is going to call it bland, safe or boring. And it is that way week in and week out on Whoopi.

In one episode, a trip to the emergency room causes Rae to denounce the medical profession and insurance providers. Tonight, religion is the focus of Goldberg's keen wit when she's reunited with Patrick Swayze, who co-starred with Whoopi (and Demi Moore) in the 1990 film Ghost. In the TV show, he plays Rae's former choreographer - from the days when she was a one-hit rhythm-and-blues singer. He has since found a higher calling that she finds annoying.

Nowhere is the show's edge more apparent than in the banter between Rae and Nasim, her concierge, as they exchange friendly insults over her African-American identity and his status as an immigrant from the Middle East. The comedic banter about his ethnic identity is daring for post-9/11 America, and for once, the risk is being taken by a network - not HBO.

"And I can't thank NBC enough for that," the 48-year-old performer says.

Beyond Whoopi's tart social commentary, the series offers its estimated 8.2 million weekly viewers a model of a multicultural community in which characters of diverse backgrounds learn to support and love one another. That's the deeper meaning of what's happening at Rae's hotel each week.

That is also the message Goldberg says she'll deliver in Baltimore tomorrow night. "You know, one of things I'll do is I'll ask people where they are from," she says. "And what I always find is that there are a lot of people that are from the same area. And I tell them to get each others' phone numbers, so that we create these odd little support groups or friendships that can be had with people with whom you thought you had nothing in common. ... "

As she does with her TV character, Goldberg tries in her public appearances to offer a vision of empowerment through positive thinking and community. "I want to remind people that, yes, there are bad things happening in our personal lives. But they are not things that have to stop us. I believe that very strongly," insists Goldberg. "That's what I'm going to be talking about. And if you want to know more, you're going to have to buy a ticket."

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