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The Invisible Man, Alive and Well (And You Still Can't See Him)

African Americans and other ethnic minorities are conspicuously absent from major networks' new shows and mind-set. It has been ever thus.

July 25, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

Just the other day, it seems--about 1980, actually--I was mounting a soapbox to say in print how rotten it was that no broadcast network had aired a prime-time drama series about blacks.

No, not about scaly, oozing, web-footed, three-headed aliens from the planet Voltron. About African Americans. Nothing revolutionary. You know, something on the order of black cast, black stories?

Wow! What a difference 20 years make!

Not a lot.

As someone who is sometimes called racist, I'm reluctant to use that hot brand on the TV industry's gatekeepers based on just a couple of decades of circumstantial evidence. But if it looks, feels and tastes like a rutabaga, what else can it be?

Not that labeling much matters. Even if it is just an oversight (smirk, snicker) or essentially profit-driven, shame is shame, and results are what count.

"I am an invisible man," says the African American narrator in one of this century's great novels, the one about a man whose black form fades into the darkness of the coal cellar where he lives.

The hero of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" goes on: "No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Blacks have rarely been entire no-shows on television, however, just frequently ridiculed, distorted, unsung and grossly underrepresented in comparison with their actual numbers, about 12% of the nation's population.

To be fair, such high-profile cable series as Showtime's "Linc's" and Lifetime's "Any Day Now," among others, prominently feature blacks (more about those shows shortly). And blacks have stood out this decade in many TV movies, a number of broadcast network comedies and a handful of quality dramas ranging from the medical series "ER" on NBC to such elite crime-law hours as ABC's "NYPD Blue" and "The Practice" and NBC's "Law & Order" and "Homicide: Life on the Street."

Although seamlessly integrating their African American characters with white characters, each of these series has punched up story lines touching on black themes. Having pivotal protagonist Andy Sipowicz be a flat-out anti-black bigot has allowed "NYPD Blue," in particular, to depict an entire tinderbox of emotions stimulated by racial volatility without appearing to be forced or contrived.

And in the wings for the coming mid-season, with its cast mostly of blacks, is the CBS urban hospital drama "City of Angels" from Paris Barclay and "NYPD Blue" co-creator Steven Bochco.

So . . . why the big snit? Why the news stories citing a lack of diversity? Why is the oft-slumbering NAACP now getting all huffy and threatening legal actions and boycotts against the four strongest networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox?

There are 26 reasons.

That's the number of new series premiering on those major networks this fall, not one of which features a minority member as the lead. That's astounding!

That's outrageous.

That's television.

Not that anti-minority collusion exists among these fierce competitors, only that when it comes to color coding, they instinctively stagger forward, arms outstretched, in sightless, mindless unison like zombies in "Night of the Living Dead."

There's blame galore to go around. And responding to negative publicity, some new shows have begun adding ethnic cast members.

Yet if there's one new fall series whose absence of minorities is especially boggling, it's NBC's "The West Wing," a drama about the White House whose large ensemble cast is headed by Martin Sheen as the president.

The executive producer, the same John Wells who heads ethnically diverse "ER," ironically, admits "agonizing over" the homogeneity of "The West Wing." And no wonder. Can you imagine any president of this era, his personal feelings aside, being politically inane enough to surround himself entirely with members of his own race? Well, here he is, for this is a White House whose name accurately describes the administration occupying it. There's not even a token minority to play a token minority.

Communications Director Toby Ziegler: white. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn: white. Press Secretary C.J. Gregg: white. Chief of Staff Leo McGarry: white. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman: white. Political consultant Madeline Hampton: white.

Well, there's always the kitchen.

Putting this in context, when it comes to short-sheeting segments of America, whether through sins of commission or omission, television has spent decades being pretty much an equal opportunity offender. The broadcast networks are doing the burgeoning post-60 crowd no favors either, for example, in a batch of new fall shows where they show up, when at all, as kinky oldies.

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