Sitcoms: Barometer Of Racial Progress

A BIG flap over a hitherto little-noticed TV series flared up in Congress last year when "Tongues Untied," a documentary about black gay life, aired on PBS in July, 1991. The show was part of "POV" - for "Point of View" - a series based on the notion that the best way to achieve "pluralism" on the airwaves is to let individual producers make personal statements - even controversial ones - in the form of TV films.

It's not a bad way to deal with the medium's perennial "balance" problem - but that's another column. Of more immediate interest is the fact that POV is kicking off its fifth season on June 15 with a program by the producer of "Tongues Untied," Marlon Riggs. The new show, called "Color Adjustment," won't cause the kind of furor "Tongues Untied" did, but it is fundamentally even more ideologically disruptive.

"Color Adjustment" also deals with black life in America, but this time it's life as pictured on TV sitcoms for the last 45 years or so - from early caricatures like "Amos Andy," to breakthrough series like "Julia," right up through "The Cosby Show," which aired its final new episode on April 30.

The impression that emerges from "Color Adjustment" says much more about white thinking than black social reality. TV sitcoms, in case anyone needed reminding, are treated as a reflection of the American dream. The place of blacks in this dream is seen as a progression - although a slow one - from gross stereotype to token integration to arrival at full yuppyhood of the kind so powerfully conveyed by "the Cosby Show" - upbeat, upscale, and, of course, richly entertaining.

A reassuring picture; the problem is, it not only had little to do with reality but often reversed it. On the very day of that last Cosby show, for instance, while the Huxtables were living in physical comfort and relative tranquility, riots were erupting in Los Angeles. It wasn't the first time sitcoms had neutralized a social problem. As blacks became more visible on sitcoms, they usually left problems of race behind them in the real world.

Yet TV entertainment did have a role to play in redressing the social vision that in the past had been couched so long and so falsely in white terms. Diahann Carroll herself once told me she felt "Julia" was a big step forward for blacks, and the noted black producer-director Topper Carew told me the same thing. "Color Adjustment" itself notes how important it was to many black people simply to see themselves on the TV screen as part of the picture.

What they were seeing may have been nothing more than a shallow media image, but it was a status report on society at large. Sitcoms usually lag behind legal steps like the banning of segregation because they aren't at the cutting edge. They are a barometer of underlying attitudes, and reading them requires a kind of Kremlinology of prime time. Small changes in permissible plot or dialogue trace a telltale path through the trivialities of bright little formats over the decades.

Sometimes the changes are sudden, as if catching up. When it debuted in 1971, I remember the shock of recognition "All in the Family" caused among viewers unused to seeing bigots portrayed. Although sitcoms may not have been ready to include a realistic picture of African-American life, they were ready, at least, to show the kind of white attitude that helped create that life. But it had to be funny. It was your social responsibility to scream with laughter at the source of those ignorant comments.

I doubt you could hold a loud-mouth buffoon like Archie Bunker up for ridicule today because he wouldn't be allowed to say those lines. Maybe it's just as well, but there's a social value in satire, and in 1971 it was not yet politically incorrect to let him have his say for the sake of mocking him. You could still laugh derisively at prejudice on network sitcoms.

Actually the Bunkers were not an attack on the American dream or even a new version of it. The series reflected a new complexity in the viewer's understanding. Something was wrong with the old image and it was time to acknowledge, on screen, the existence of bigotry. Archie was the messenger.

No one really knows when the next adjustment in the prime-time entertainment version of reality will be made in today's TV, but the new messenger is probably already in the wings.

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