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TELEVISION : Where More Isn't Much Better : African-Americans are increasingly welcome in prime time, but some observers say the new shows fail to rise above stereotypes

October 04, 1992|GREG BRAXTON | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

In "Martin," Lawrence (seen earlier in "Boomerang" and the two "House Party" films) plays a radio talk-show host who is a lot more macho with his listeners than he is with his girlfriend. What has raised the eyebrows of some watchers is Lawrence's other roles in drag--his imposing mother (complete with mustache) and his man-hungry neighbor Sheneneh, complete with outrageously colored midriff, excessive makeup and an exaggerated rear end.

Carew said that he is aware of the criticisms. "If you lived and died by criticism, there never would have been a civil rights movement," he said.

"We get a lot of favorable reaction to the show at the street level. We do characterizations that are obviously intended to be funny, but when we do reality, we try to avoid stereotypes."

Carew and other producers question whether they are being unfairly scrutinized or held to a higher standard than Anglo shows. "Gilligan's Island," "Three's Company" and "Married . . . With Children," for example, have never been held accountable for not accurately portraying contemporary Anglo values.

"We're under more of a microscope than, say, the guys on 'Full House,' " said producer Milligan of "Here and Now." "Those guys could put on dresses and no one would say anything."

"These shows are reviewed as black shows, not as TV as a whole," echoed producer Edwards of "Out All Night." "They're reviewed on a sociological basis and an entertainment basis. Sometimes that conflicts. Sometimes what makes good sociology does not make great television."

But Herman Gray, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz, argued that while it's fine to entertain, the pictures of African-Americans should be painted with a broader brush.

"I used to think that blacks ought to be given the same opportunity to put on eye candy as everyone else," Gray said. "But given the history of the images that have been presented, it's not asking too much to ask for the boundaries of traditional television fare to be stretched when it comes to blacks."

Gray said television should focus more on themes revolving around the black working-class, similar to those portrayed on the critically acclaimed but failed 1987 CBS series "Frank's Place," which was about a cafe owner in New Orleans.

Moffet, the executive producer of "Rhythm & Blues," said he understands the criticism.

"Most of America is not black, and most of their knowledge of blacks is through television, so it is important that blacks be portrayed positively," Moffet said. "But sometimes we are held to a higher standard in terms of what we can or can't do, especially when there's a character who is broader or sillier or based in physical comedy.

"There's a lot of positives to that. But critics are quicker to jump down the throat of black shows when they show black characters to be human."

In the long run, whatever the shortcomings of individual programs, the producers believe that this season is a step forward in terms of making blacks more of a visible force on television. "The fortunate byproduct is that a lot of these shows do advance the social agenda, and nothing but good can come from that," Edwards said.

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