The camera looks up at a towering urban edifice, which turns out to be a fictional L.A. hospital that is meaningfully marked, “Angels of Mercy.” The soundtrack resonates meaningfully, with a gospel-bluesish voice plus hopeful-mournful organ. The camera cuts to an interior shot, showing a fairly standard TV version of a city hospital’s hustle and bustle, hand held cameras and heavy soundtrack backbeat included, the meaningful difference being that the walk-through actors and the principals in these hallways are mostly black.
All this is a lot of meaningfulness for one TV show to bear. (Not to mention the added pressure of arriving on air around the same time as the current crop of unbelievably popular, cheap-to-make “gimme my money” game shows.) But Steven Bochco Productions, the man/company responsible for Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Brooklyn South, Doogie Howser MD, and NYPD Blue, seems willing to take on this burden, and indeed, has milked it in the promotion for City of Angels. Mostly, the spots do what such spots are supposed to do, showcase the beautiful faces of its famous stars Blair Underwood and Vivica A. Fox in typical drama series contortions, looking tense in close-ups as some kind of monitor beeps away in the background or glancing back as the camera swoops past and around them, ER-style. Meanwhile, the somber male voice-over intones, “The power of courage and the rewards of sacrifice…”
Indeed. And what will such power and rewards be, you wonder? The answer is complicated. As the first and only dramatic series for the 1999-2000 season (they’re calling it a midterm replacement series) with a majority black cast, City of Angels has a lot of people rooting and gunning for it, especially following last year’s very noisy complaints from the NAACP and Latino/Latina organizations that minority communities are egregiously under-represented in all aspects of network TV production. As the accused parties scrambled to make public peace with their accusers, most visibly the NAACP’s Kwiesi Mfume, they apparently thought hard about how to rectify the situation. Lucky for CBS (or so the suits there must have thought), the network already had signed on for Bochco’s series, and even signed an unusual commitment to 13 episodes, no matter what happens (though I’d wager there’s get-us-out-of-this fine print somewhere).
It’s not surprising that Bochco has arisen as this shining knight figure and that “his” show is carrying all this responsibility. For, whatever bungles he’s made in the past (say, Cop Rock and Capital Critters), he remains one of the most consistently well-regarded and well-rewarded producer-writers in TV, that most notoriously restrictive and reductive medium, and over the years (he’s been at this since 1972), his shows have often included and sometimes privileged characters of color. But while it may be an understandable business decision to go with a Bochco series, it also reiterates a primary component of the under-representation problem, namely, the lack of minority producers, writers, directors, and advertisers. And it sets up yet another potential hurdle if the show doesn’t score decent ratings: if a Mr. Magic Touch Bochco show fails, the industry logic goes, then no black or Latino or Asian or Native American show can make the grade.
Funny, they never say that about rejected white shows: if Snoops and Harsh Realm go down in flames (which they did), then there’s no chance for another white show, ever. Funny, they never say, we need to take it more slowly with these white shows. And funny, they don’t call white shows “white.”
It does seem worth asking what constitutes this “grade” that must be made. For the most part, it means making the crossover to white viewers. Paris Barclay, Bochco’s producing partner for City, likens their position to being “the Jackie Robinson” of series TV (even if this show is canceled, he notes, others will follow, just as someone else would have played Robinson’s role if, for some reason, he had been unable to endure the enormous stress that he in fact did endure). But this isn’t necessarily comforting to the people involved in City right now, who obviously want it to be the busting-down-barriers show (these people would include Michael Schultz, the resilient and respected director of such film classics as Cooley High, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, Krush Groove, not to mention episodes of Starsky and Hutch, The Practice and Felicity: the man is a survivor and then some).
Put it this way: how long are we supposed to wait for the industry to get enlightened? It’s like that old story that Tupac used to tell: after waiting so long outside the door to the room where all the rich white people are partying inside, you have to get tired and frustrated and angry. First you ask nicely for a little taste of that party food, then you ask a little more forcefully, start to make a little more noise at the door, until, eventually, you’re kicking in the door, coming for what’s yours.
It’s clear from City‘s first two episodes that no one involved is kicking in doors just yet. The premiere on Sunday 16 January and the first regular episode on Wednesday 19 January, were tediously mainstream, in terms of writing, editing, characterization, and camerawork. Well, almost. The first two, pre-credits minutes of the premiere showed the hospital Medical Director, Dr. Frank Hollister (Garrett Morris), coincidentally drunk on the night that an opera singer arrives at the hospital deceased, following a freak accident (the press briefing is handled by Hill Street Blues veteran Michael Warren). Almost immediately, he’s in the morgue with the corpse, praising her beauty and bemoaning her passing, and suddenly, “sharing a Kodak moment.” Freeze frame of Hollister and the dead diva. Cut to the credits.
It’s reported that this first scene was originally longer, that Hollister had a “racy” conversation with the corpse and peeked under her sheet. At the last minute, the scene was cut back, but the point of his “interest” in the diva remains quite clear. What’s notable about this story is that it shows where anxiety about the show is emerging. All its boring, predictable elements remain secure, but anything remotely dicey is excised (at least visibly). Compare this to Bochco’s long-running NYPD Blue, whose makers seem quite happy to court controversy (nude backsides, nasty language, on- and off-screen violence, racism, sexism, and other instances of human ugliness).
City of Angels, however, has this burden of meaningfulness. And so, its hospital business is just about as usual as you can imagine. The first post-credits sequence in the premiere sets up one of its hot topics, black anti-Semitism. Dr. Ben Turner (Underwood), the wise and wonderful Acting Head of Surgery, must mediate between two hotheaded interns, Dr. Wesley Williams (Hill Harper) and Dr. Geoffrey Weiss (Phil Buckman). Said mediation involves soothing Geoffrey’s ruffled feathers because black patients tend not to trust him (Geoffrey calls it “the Jew question”) and tempering Wesley’s “youthful” impatience with Weiss’s complaining. Just when you’re thinking there’s too many boys in this scenario, in comes Dr. Lillian Pierce (Fox, who is simply too powerful a performer for the weak-ass dialogue she has here), Hollister’s replacement. (Just so you know this is a Bochco-concoction, Lillian and Ben have a past, that is, they’re former fiances from seven years back but still their hearts go a-fluttering when they see each other and too soon, they’re stuck in a Supply Room alone and together).
Predictably, Lillian’s been hired to get the hospital “back on track,” which means she has to handle the press (tracking down stories of lost bodies and the Hollister “scandal”) and cut deals with the slithery head of the board of directors, Edwin O’Malley (Robert Morse, as a villain so trite that you can say his lines before he does ). Not to mention her bonding moment with the other “sister” doctor, who, you know, has something to do with Dr. Ben Turner’s current self-confidence. Still, the premiere did deliver one of the more perverse moments I’ve seen in a medical drama, when, in a parking garage, O’Malley demands that Lillian give him one of her designer shoes in exchange for getting a woman junkie out of jail so her mother will have a life-saving operation… and Lillian does so. She does, thankfully, show her distrust, amazement, and a tinge of fear at this business, while also, in the next instant, showing she has what it takes to show down this asshole. Who knows where this clash might be leading down the road, but let’s hope it leads somewhere.
Unfortunately, hope may be the best response that you can manage, based on these early episodes of City of Angels. It’s plain already that varieties of racism will loom large in the scripts (it’s a topic that has, after all, garnered critical acclaim for NYPD Blue of late, in particular the several showdowns between Detective Sipowicz and Lt. Fancy). Not only is Weiss feeling oppressed, but Williams acts out his own intra-race prejudice disguised as “moral judgment,” when, in the second episode, he decides to send a respectable looking patient to the ER before he sends a young man with a bullet in his gut, because this latter patient looks like a banger. Unfortunately for Williams, but fortunately for those members of the viewing public in search of object lessons in their TV shows, this particular shooting victim turns out to be another doctor, one well-versed in the “principles of trauma management.”
It’s not hard to guess why City of Angels goes to such melodramatic measures, why it’s packing in all these “issues.” It seems ready to take its responsibilities as the black drama on TV seriously, but is simultaneously nervous about making that crossover grade. So, it features lovable, non-threatening, and familiar characters, the “comical” older male gall bladder patient who calls his large-bodied black nurse “Big Stuff”; the dedicated and ailing grandmother and her drug-addicted daughter; the smart lady-doctor; the gentle male doctor-in-charge (shades of Vondie Curtis-Hall in Chicago Hope); the ambitious and competing male residents (these general types lifted from ER and any other doctor drama ever to hit TV). And, it’s showing characters of various colors, variously troubled: Dr. Liu seems to be ready to operate on patients without checking their identities, Board Member Guerrero appears to be an addict who owes O’Malley big time, and there’s an arrogant white academic played by Robert Foxworth whose villainy seems, so far, to be more tied to his status as an academic than as white. The show is making clearly calculated decisions (for instance, to focus on romance issues, or anti-Semitism and black on black prejudice), so it won’t get tagged the black show with an “attitude.” But, while trying to be meaningful and un-scary, the series is taking another kind of risk, timid about knocking on that door too loudly.
It’s disheartening, surely, that the show is looking so banal so soon. But Barclay and Bochco are promising more sand in the future. Until then, I’m down with Lillian, who says to Ben during one of their several “heart to hearts” (which are performed in the lounge or cafeteria, when they’re acting tired and reflecting on their day’s activities), “This place grabs me by the scruff of the neck, turns me upside down and flips me sideways.” It’s going to be a bumpy ride, for sure.