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Black-themed series come to a crossroads

May 18, 2008|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Life AT Tattaglia High School in Brooklyn can be tough. Homework, heartbreak and, on this day, a red-haired bully is on the loose, determined to torment unsuspecting nerds.

Amid the hallway chaos of the class change, though, stands a grown-up wearing a white head scarf and gym shorts, with a valuable lesson to impart to the nerds -- how to take a bully's punch. The idea is to heighten the laughs for a scene being filmed on the set of “Everybody Hates Chris," the nostalgic Chris Rock-inspired sitcom about a Brooklyn teenager growing up in the 1980s.

The adult is Ali LeRoi, who created the CW series with Rock and coaches the young actors on how best to move through the scene -- a comically tense encounter involving young Chris (Tyler James Williams), his best friend Greg (Vincent Martella) and Joey the bully (Travis Flory).

LeRoi is a TV rarity, a show runner guiding one of the few remaining series on network television dealing with African Americans. This, depending on who you talk to, is a woeful or an encouraging development.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, May 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
'Everybody Hates Chris': In an article in Sunday's Calendar section about black-themed TV shows, the character of young Chris' father, played by Terry Crews, was referred to as Julian Rock. His name is Julius.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 25, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
"Everybody Hates Chris": In an article in last Sunday's Calendar about black-themed TV shows, the character of young Chris' father, played by Terry Crews, was referred to as Julian Rock. His name is Julius.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 01, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
NAACP official: A May 18 article about the plight of black situation comedies identified Vic Bullock as president of the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP. He is executive director of the NAACP Hollywood bureau.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 04, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
NAACP official: An article in the May 18 Calendar section about the plight of black situation comedies identified Vic Bulluck as president of the Hollywood chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. He is executive director of the NAACP Hollywood bureau. Also, in a correction in Sunday's Calendar, Bulluck's last name was misspelled as Bullock.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 08, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
NAACP official: A correction last Sunday about NAACP executive director Vic Bulluck misspelled his last name as Bullock.

Though Chris and his friends may still be experiencing growing pains, the series -- currently filming its fourth season for airing this fall, in a move to Friday nights from Sundays -- is not, according to LeRoi. (The season finale airs at 8 tonight.)

"If we were a basketball team, we would be in the playoffs," said LeRoi, sitting in his office beneath a huge French poster from Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," a satire about African American comedies. "We know how to shoot this show, all the dynamics are beginning to jell, even our interactions with network executives are going better."

LeRoi speaks like a seasoned veteran as he acknowledges that "Everybody Hates Chris" has taken its share of punches since its 2005 debut. Once trumpeted as a breakout hit, the show has struggled through slipping ratings, marketing woes and network upheaval.

Moreover, "Everybody Hates Chris" is a show with a predominantly African American cast in an era when black-themed series appear to be at a crossroads. This season's departure of the CW's long-running "Girlfriends" leaves only two network shows in prime time -- both struggling on the CW --that revolve around black casts: "Everybody Hates Chris" and the "Girlfriends" spinoff "The Game."

Meanwhile, on the cable side, the numbers are only slightly better. There's ABC Family's “Lincoln Heights," a one-hour drama about a black family, and TBS' "Tyler Perry's '’," a highly rated sitcom. And last month, MyNetwork TV launched “Under One Roof," a comedy starring rapper Flavor Flav that was met with a chorus of negative reviews.

The issue of fewer African American stars and shows has provoked pointed concern from minority groups. In particular, Vic Bulluck, president of the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP, decries the further shrinking of television's historically limited racial diversity.

"We're very concerned about and disappointed at the lack of representation," said Bulluck. "It's something that we've been discussing with all the networks for a while, ever since the 'Bernie Mac' show left Fox. With 'Girlfriends' now leaving, the situation becomes a lot more urgent. The situation as it stands now is unacceptable."

However, lower numbers of primarily black shows may also signal something completely different -- a growing dissolution of the medium's color line. Instead of being ignored, blacks may have merely become more deeply integrated and accepted into mainstream culture, thus eliminating the need for segregated series.

"Given the changes in society and having a serious African American candidate running for president who has white financial and emotional support indicates that the time for 'black shows' has passed," said writer and comedian Franklyn Ajaye, who has worked on shows such as "In Living Color."

Understanding 'Chris'

The CULTURAL shift, if true, could translate into edgier, more multidimensional comedies for African Americans -- something akin to "Frasier," "Sex and the City" or "Seinfeld." ("Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer is an executive producer of "Girlfriends.")

"Everybody Hates Chris" fits perfectly in that niche and transcends the category of the traditional black show, maintains LeRoi. The show functions on several different levels -- as a family sitcom, as a nostalgic examination of adolescence in the '80s, and as a platform for the dry, observational humor of Rock, who narrates the series.

"From our perspective, this was never about being a black show," says LeRoi. "The interests of Chris and I are broad and eclectic. The foundation is reflective of our influences, Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith. It's broad and global. It's about family, a slice of life."

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