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TV REVIEW : 'Roof' Rare in Prime Time

March 14, 1995|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

So rarely do African American characters gain access to prime-time drama series that their mere presence in one has you uncorking champagne. So here's toasting the CBS newcomer "Under One Roof," at the very least for creating a fissure in this near wall of whiteness.

Moreover, you won't find a series with a loftier cast than this one or with more likable characters than Seattle's Langstons, a large, boisterous, extended family filling a spacious duplex in one of those graying, fairly solid, middle-class neighborhoods noted for their graceful old residences and fading grandeur.

These are believable people, and this is a comfortable, if at times bothersome, series. You'd like to get to know them better.

Awkwardly coexisting with his daughter, Ayisha (Monique L. Ridge), and a 16-year-old street kid named Marcus (Merlin Santana), whom he took in after his mother died of a drug overdose, is Neb (James Earl Jones), an authoritarian widower and veteran cop who is the family patriarch. Next door are Neb's son, Ron (Joe Morton), who is a struggling small-businessman, and his wife, Maggie (Vanessa Bell Calloway), a working mother who has returned to college to get a nursing degree. Also present are Ron and Maggie's teen daughter, Charlie (Essence Atkins), and son, Derrick (Ronald Joshua Scott)--along with the usual parent-kid conflicts.

Tonight, for example, Charlie "borrows" her mother's credit card to buy a dress, and next week little Derrick, wearing sunglasses and a stocking cap while imitating a rapper in front of a mirror, calls his shocked mother a "bitch" without even knowing the word's meaning. Mingling humor and gravity, these themes are nicely executed, as are angry clashes between Neb and the rebellious Marcus.

Yet this series still somehow lacks oomph, sometimes leaving you unsatisfied. For one thing, its crises are too easily resolved. For another, its writing at times is saccharine and soggy, undermining the superior performances of its cast. It's better than most, but not as good as it could be.

* "Under One Roof" premieres at 8 tonight on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

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