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On View : 'True Colors' Treats Interracial Family Matter-of-Factly

August 04, 1991|David Nicholson | The Washington Post

The premise of Fox's "True Colors" is simple: A widowed dentist meets a divorced teacher. They fall in love. They get married. He has two sons. She has a daughter. Her mother lives with them.

All of this sounds like a fairly commonplace family-oriented sitcom. Except that the dentist, Ron Freeman (Frankie Faison), is black; his wife, Ellen (Stephanie Faracy), is white; and her mother, Sara (Nancy Walker), is never shy about letting Ellen know she dislikes Ron.

What makes "True Colors" unusual, of course, is that romantic black-and-white relationships have been so rarely shown on prime-time television as to be almost nonexistent.

"True Colors" depicts an interracial couple whose conflicts with each other, their children and the world seldom stem from the fact that she is white and he is black. Thus the show avoids the conventions that govern the depiction of cross-racial relationships on television and in the movies. Such relationships usually involve white men and women of color, and end unhappily with death, illness, or the realization that it's wrong to cross racial barriers.

All in all, much of what happens on the show is normal sitcom stuff, and perhaps that's the point. If it's not quite true that race no longer matters in America, at least perhaps "True Colors" is one sign that race no longer matters quite as much.

Executive producer Michael Weithorn said "True Colors" evolved from a pilot he wrote about a black man and a white woman who became roommates in New York.

Weithorn said he took the pilot to the three major networks, where "they rejected it and were very frank about the fact that they just couldn't air this."

Nonetheless, Weithorn was still attracted to the idea of a show based on an interracial relationship. "So I sort of reworked it," he said, "and came up with this idea for a blended family."

This time, he took the show to Fox, knowing "from my prior experience that the whole thing involving the whole issue of an interracial romantic relationship, when the man is black, is off-limits to the other networks."

For some viewers, the sight of a black man married to a white woman was too much. Though none of the 130 Fox stations refused to air it, some angry viewers sent threatening hate mail.

"There was some objectionable mail and, really, some death threats," said Faracy, "and the FBI was brought in to discuss how to secure our lives and our homes. But I have to tell you, in the beginning of the year, when we got a death threat, I went, "Gee, I could be killed, and my part's not even developed really well.' "

At its best, "True Colors" has a way of puncturing assumptions, as, for example, in the show that featured, in flashback, scenes of Ron and Ellen's first meeting. Suffering from a cracked tooth, she walks into his office and stops short, exclaiming, "You're black!" Then she compounds her apparent racism by insisting on examining his dental diploma.

Ron, assuming she doesn't want to be treated by a black dentist, bluntly suggests she find another. The problem, of course, is not that she's a racist but that she's stepped into the wrong office in search of a Dr. Friedman.

More often, however, "True Colors" seems to ignore its premise, and racial issues are soft-pedaled, as if the producers and writers weren't quite sure what to do with what they've created.

Faison, who has hundreds of stage and film roles to his credit, said "True Colors" appealed to him because "I thought it was certainly about time that they started dealing with this subject. ... So I looked forward to working on the show. I thought it could be a real breakthrough for television. If it was done right."

Was it "done right"?

"Yes and no," Faison said. "Realizing that this is a situation comedy, that this is television you're dealing with, I think that we have done it right--we've sort of eased into it. Unfortunately, people still see this type of relationship as something that is shocking. We've given the audience a chance to meet the characters, to like the characters, and given the characters a chance to develop."

But, he added, "we have sort of shied away from my vision of what this show was about, and it was about an interracial couple. And you're treating this family just as a normal, regular family in situation comedy, which is not something that I was primarily interested in."

Weithorn said the decision to make the racial differences in the Freeman family a "minor key" was deliberate. "My take on it originally was that this was sort of a blended family, and that the racial difference between the two sides of the family was not the main thing that the show was about."

He said, however, that as the year went on, he began to see that it was an area that could be explored, albeit always for comedy. "We could explore a lot more the cultural differences between the two groups and other kinds of situations and issues that would arise out of the racial difference."

"True Colors" airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.

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