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Inner-City Sitcom: Is This a Joke? : Television: While the networks avoid weekly dramas about black family life, a possible CBS series, 'South Central,' would try to mix comedy with issues.

April 03, 1993|RICK DU BROW

It's only a year since the Los Angeles riots, the Rodney G. King and Reginald O. Denny cases are still up in the air--and CBS has a weekly series project titled "South Central."

It's a sitcom.

Insensitive exploitation? Or--as the producers and network claim--a chance to help deal with issues through comedy mixed with drama?

"MASH" and "All in the Family" did it.

The producers of "South Central"--Ralph Farquhar, who is black, and Michael Weithorn, who is white--say that if they're pressured to "trivialize" the show, they will "pull the plug" and refuse to go forward with it.

Still, with television's shameful history in avoiding weekly dramas about black family life, it's a pity that the main route to humanize inner-city issues in regular series is almost exclusively through comedy.

The burden on comedy is tougher. If comedy fails to click on all cylinders in dealing with lofty issues, it faces almost certain disaster and resentment simply because of the sitcom form.

As things stand, there's no guarantee "South Central" will be on the CBS schedule when the networks announce their new fall lineups next month. It was simply one of about 115 projects unveiled by the networks to advertisers last week, and only about one-third of the shows outlined will make the final cut.

What's more, "South Central," if it makes the CBS lineup, could face further tough challenges and questions about the appropriateness of its comedy basis if there is more explosive fallout in the months ahead from the outcome of the King and Denny cases.

"I suppose at that point we will try to be truthful about what's going on," says Farquhar. "We won't dodge it. It will be incorporated in our series as an event that took place and had consequences in this family."

The family in "South Central" is headed by a struggling, principled mother who is trying to raise her children the best she can despite the neighborhood problems.

The networks' development trends included standup comedians (because of "Seinfeld"), a fresh look at Westerns, tons of stars--and youth-oriented Fox TV's decision to go after old people all the way up to the age of 49.

But several top ad agency executives doubt the chances of "South Central" to make the CBS schedule, saying the network hasn't pushed it hard.

However, Peter Tortorici, executive vice president of CBS Entertainment, refuses to write the project off: "We've been waiting a long time for a breakout show with an African-American cast. We didn't want to do yet another hip-hop show."

A reading of the script for the planned pilot episode of "South Central" makes clear the show's goal. The 35-year-old mother sets the tone as an industrious woman who is out of work but looking hard for a job. She has a son, 16, a daughter, 14, and another boy, 5.

The mother is upset with her teen-age son because he bought a beeper. "In this neighborhood it's the gangbangers and the drug dealers" that use them, she tells him angrily. It later comes out that an older son was killed in a gang incident.


"I grew up in the projects of Chicago," says Farquhar. "You know, you don't sit around moping all day." He adds:

"I have relatives in South-Central here, and these families have a strong moral base and are up against incredible obstacles, and the ones that do succeed blow your mind by how they pull it off. And the family we created (for the pilot) is the rule more than the exception."

According to Weithorn, "CBS has been pushing the aspect that we not trivialize the experience." He says the idea of the half-hour series is not "to stick to the safe terrain of 'The Cosby Show' or 'Martin.' "

Will viewers ever really get to see "South Central"? Says Tortorici: "If the show's good, that's the main thing. We wanted to take a family obviously in a difficult situation and show how they manage to endure because they care for each other."

However, advertising executive Betsy Frank of the Saatchi & Saatchi agency says, "CBS didn't highlight (the series) in the presentation. It made me think that maybe it didn't have a real great chance of making it." And Joel Segal of the McCann-Erickson agency adds, "This is not one they played up."

But both ad executives indicated "South Central" could have potential for their clients. Says Segal: "If they play it as drama with humor, it could be uplifting. It could be positive."

Still, it is mortifying that TV does not think first of handling a subject with such urgent, nerve-end emotions--especially nowadays in Los Angeles--in its more natural form of drama. The built-in threat of insensitivity comes from network TV downgrading drama series, upgrading reality shows and turning to sitcoms as questionable pulpits for an endless stream of serious topical issues, often manhandled by gag writers and laugh tracks.

While some sitcoms, such as "Roseanne"--which won broadcasting's Peabody Award Thursday--are up to the challenge, most are not.

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