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The hot button of a casual embrace

Interracial relationships abound on TV now, but they're often colorblind. How real is that?

February 11, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

CHRISTINE Campbell (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the attractive but bumbling title character of CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine," and Daniel Harris (Blair Underwood), who teaches a predominantly white fourth grade, eye each other hungrily when they meet at the posh private school. But the two divorces fear that just going out on a date will invite disapproval and scorn and may even cause Daniel to lose his job.

The problem for the potential lovebirds has nothing to do with Christine being white and Daniel being black. Their barrier is a policy prohibiting teachers from dating parents. That they would be an interracial couple is basically a nonissue.

Or, as one of the mothers of a student in Mr. Harris' class exclaims when she first spots the handsome new teacher, "Who knew diversity could be so gorgeous?"

The plight of Christine and Daniel is just one example of a flurry of interracial and interethnic relationships that have quietly developed in prime time during the last few seasons. Similar relationships on TV and film, particularly between blacks and whites, often touched off controversy or met resistance in past decades. But in recent seasons, with little or no fanfare, mixed couples have popped up on programs as disparate as "House," "Lost," "The L Word," "Boston Legal," "My Name Is Earl," "Men in Trees" and "Desperate Housewives."

NBC's "Heroes," about a group of ordinary people who discover they have superpowers, has at least three interracial relationships, including a troubled mom (Ali Larter) with a double personality who clashes with her estranged prison escapee husband (Leonard Roberts). On "Grey's Anatomy," Isaiah Washington's and Sandra Oh's characters are engaged, and T.R. Knight's and Sara Ramirez's characters recently eloped. FX's "Nip/Tuck" featured Sanaa Lathan as a woman caught between two white men: her rich tycoon husband (Larry Hagman) and the plastic surgeon Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) treating him. On HBO's racially charged "The Wire," a Baltimore police major (Lance Reddick) hooked up with an assistant state attorney (Deidre Lovejoy) following the collapse of his marriage to a black woman.

Most of the series with mixed couples take a colorblind approach to the romances, downplaying the dynamics or scrutiny that such couples might encounter in real life. The colorful mash-ups that made Lucy and Ricky on "I Love Lucy" so intriguing yet familiar and comfortable have been toned down, largely stripped of cultural conflict and discovery. Issues of race may be front and center in the political, sports and entertainment arenas, but unlike last year's Oscar winner "Crash," where Los Angeles residents of different races repeatedly clashed and hurled racial epithets, the only "crash" on these shows is when the characters' lips collide.

Producers of some of the shows say the influx represents a positive evolution demonstrating that such romances are no longer a big deal. But other producers and observers argue that the move toward colorblind romance oversimplifies race relations. It's a debate that seems right at home in a culture that's also split between celebrating the arrival of a formidable black presidential candidate and wondering if he's "black enough."

As more and more interracial couples take up residence on the small screen, the larger issue, as some see it, is more troubling: Guess who's coming to dinner but not being invited to hang out after the dishes are cleared?

Diversity, after all, remains a problem on TV. Yes, more people of color are playing in the prime-time network arena, but they're mostly on the sidelines, particularly when it comes to producing and writing teams and starring roles. Of nearly 60 prime-time series on the four major networks, only five have performers of color in leading roles, and only two -- "Ugly Betty" and "George Lopez" -- are built around minority characters.

Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori late last month warned more than 40 producers of current shows and pilots that they had better increase their efforts to hire minority performers, writers and technicians or risk not getting picked up by the network. "We think as a network it's the right, moral thing to do, and it's the right business thing to do.... For TV, and certainly for Fox, to be vibrant, relevant and authentic, we need to be reflective of the general population." (Census figures don't track interracial couplings, but they do show a steady uptick in the number of mixed-race couples.)

Ligouri's is not a new refrain. In 1999, Kweisi Mfume, then chairman of the NAACP, charged Fox, CBS, ABC and NBC with creating a "virtual whitewash in programming." Mfume attacked the networks after pointing out that, of the 26 new comedies and dramas premiering this fall, none featured a minority in a leading role.

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