Reviews > Culture

A minority share

Culture | Christians should learn from Cosby, Murphy

Issue: "The McCain craze," Feb. 19, 2000

CBS's new series, City of Angels, is a predictable drama-and a predictable drama brought it about. The NAACP and its allies last fall demanded that the television networks include more minorities in prime-time programming. Hollywood responded, but in Hollywood fashion; City of Angels is a show about blacks, written by blacks, and produced by blacks. But it's still a white guy's idea of "the African-American Experience"-a jumble of crack addicts, race crusaders, wise old janitors, and preteen gangsters. The white guy who created the show is Steven Bochco, the creator of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. He wants a "gritty" show-and it should never be forgotten or forgiven that the last time Mr. Bochco shot for gritty, we saw Dennis Franz naked. City of Angels is set in a "troubled Los Angeles hospital" named Angels of Mercy; a new administrator is allied with an indignant crusader who spouts medical terminology and Al Sharpton political slogans. The Man is represented by an unscrupulous hospital CEO and by a constant flow of annoying, arrogant white doctors who walk onto the set long enough to mess up operations. City of Angels lacks the ensemble dynamics that made ER a hit; it's not just gritty, it's abrasive. Still, there's a lesson in it for another minority prone to complain that television ignores its beliefs and values: Christians. Since Hollywood simply doesn't understand the Christian Experience, it responds with shows about its idea of Christianity-theological murkiness and liberalism (Soul Man, Nothing Sacred) or sticky, dangerous sentimentalism-as-spirituality (Touched by an Angel). The experience of other minorities shows Christians a better way: To do it right, do it yourself. Cases in point: Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy. Both rose to fame being representative blacks in shows produced by and for whites-Mr. Cosby in I Spy (remember that?) and Mr. Murphy on Saturday Night Live. But once they had the clout to do it themselves, what did they produce? Mr. Cosby created the non-dysfunctional Huxtable family, and The Cosby Show (1984-1992) became enormously successful-without obsessing about drugs and gangs. And Mr. Murphy has used his money and star power to transition from forgettable action flicks (Beverly Hills Cop) to films such as The Nutty Professor and Dr. Doolittle. Both were pet projects for Mr. Murphy, and his version of the African-American Experience involved crude humor but also stable, middle-class families, with not a single drug-addicted prostitute in sight. The lesson here is that Christians need to do Hollywood's defining of Christianity. One large step in the right direction is PaxTV, with its fledgling original series Hope Island. The show still suffers from Touched by an Angel blandness and theological murkiness, but it's getting better. What's important here is that a Christian with clout, Bill Paxson, was willing to do it himself. Now, this is not a foolproof plan for prime-time influence. The set of Moesha is a timely reminder that Hollywood can ruin a good thing. There's been pressure to make the UPN's black teen comedy "more relevant"-and so a program about a stable, happy, two-parent black family will now be about premarital sex, HIV transmission, and gangs. Drugged-out prostitutes are presumably waiting in the wings. One of the show's creators, Vida Spears, objected so loudly about this slide into stereotypes that she was fired last November. UPN's chief executive white guy, Tom Nunn, sacked this black woman because he wanted more "authenticity" about the Black Experience. We shouldn't demand that guys like this give us their version of the Christian Experience.

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