[11 April 2010]
How easy it would be to praise Lincoln Heights simply because it is a ‘black’ television drama. In the landscape of American programming, ‘black’ situation comedies are a cinch to rattle off by name (i.e., The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, Living Single), but ‘black’ dramas are scarce. By ‘black show’, I mean TV shows with a mostly ‘black’ or ‘African-American’ cast, with the understanding that we are talking about ‘race’ here as a social construct. It can be fluid and blurred in its boundaries although it may seem rigid in application.
No matter how we define race and racial identity, the fact that Lincoln Heights exists at all is something to celebrate. Given this, you’d think the four-disc package for its inaugural season would be packed with episode commentary and other extra goodies. That is not the case. The closest thing to that is the episode booklet, which includes a brief introduction to the series, and its initial hurdles, by executive producer Kathleen McGhee-Anderson.
When it comes to ‘black TV dramas’, the pickings have been slim over the years. There was Soul Food, the small screen version of the popular motion picture of the same name. There was Under One Roof, starring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Bell Calloway, about a Seattle, Washington family consisting of a widowed police officer, his adult children, and his grandchildren. Under One Roof was canceled after about six or seven episodes. Too bad, really, because it was a compelling program.
There was also Frank’s Place, a much-lauded 30-minute comedic drama, sans laugh track. Frank’s Place starred Tim Reid as an Ivy League professor who inherits a restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana. Although Frank’s Place was praised for its intelligent and innovative storytelling, it didn’t last long. Steven Bochco’s City of Angels was a medical show along the lines of Trapper John, M.D., Chicago Hope, and ER. Starring Blair Underwood, Vivica A. Fox, and Michael Warren, City of Angels packed a punch in the operating room but failed to generate ratings.
Compiling a list that’s much longer requires an expansive and welcoming definition of ‘black drama’. That’s how shows like In the Heat of the Night, The L Word, ESPN’s Playmakers, and Gideon’s Crossing could make the cut. We appreciate Lincoln Heights for giving viewers another drama to root for, but that appreciation comes with the awareness that the show’s strength resides in the narrative tensions of its characters.
Season One of Lincoln Heights follows the Sutton family’s transition from a cramped outer city apartment complex to a roomier inner city home. Eddie Sutton (superbly portrayed by Russell Hornsby) is a police officer with his sights set on leading his family into home ownership. As it turns out, he is eligible to buy a home in the southern California neighborhood he patrols, called Lincoln Heights, by participating in a law enforcement program allowing officers to purchase confiscated property at a discount. The Sutton home, formerly a known crack den, took some refurbishing before the family could live there. “Any place is gonna look a whole lot better with some plants and a fresh coat of paint!” says Eddie to his family, eyes gleaming.
No doubt, the house represents the Lincoln Heights neighborhood itself, as the Sutton home, like the community, is filled with dreams, expectations, and trepidation. Like the neighborhood, all the house needs is a little attention. Or at least that’s the theory.
The house signifies the professional and personal conflicts endured by Eddie Sutton, since his occupation provided his chance at the house but he also bought it for his family. Not only that, it reconnects Eddie with his back story, since, in those hazy sepia-toned days before the action in the series premiere, he used to live in “the Heights”. He grew up there, bonded with his neighbors, and even suffered the loss of his mother there.
The irony is not lost on the viewers, given that the show centers around a neighborhood called “the Heights” that has developed a reputation for social and educational lows. In this regard, Lincoln Heights brings us to familiar territory, considering the shows and films we’ve seen many times over about do-gooders joining the urban trenches to revitalize a “bad” neighborhood: Dangerous Minds, Stand & Deliver, Lean on Me, Freedom Writers, and so on.
Despite this, Lincoln Heights distinguishes itself and hits its greatest strides when it explores the multiple conflicts experienced by its ‘do-gooders’. The writing that propels Lincoln Heights is not afraid to put the characters in the crucible, to turn up the heat, and to create dramatic tension that illuminates what really makes these characters tick.The neighborhood, and the conflict it fosters, puts the characters in constant friction to smooth their edges and sharpen their motivations. The characters don’t necessarily get wiser, but at least we see them more clearly and we quickly learn that these particular “do-gooders” are not without their doubts, misconceptions, bad habits, and vanity.
For a show on the ABC Family channel, home to relatively safe and innocuous programming, the world of Lincoln Heights is stressed and intense, sometimes claustorphobically so. We see people get stabbed, and little girls jumping rope get shot by stray bullets. In the midst of this, the more Eddie Sutton struggles to keep his police life separate from his family life, the more the two continue to merge.
His new neighbors regard him warily, suspicious of his badge even when he’s in plain clothes. That he’s a ‘black’ man plays in the background to keep him torn between his law enforcement duties (representing, to the skeptics, the first stage of an unjust legal system) and his loyalty to the neighborhood that raised him. He is a perpetual insider cloaked in the uniform of an occasional outsider, well-meaning but at first noticed only for his squad car and his firearm. He is constantly on alert for threats to his wife Jennifer (supremely talented Nicki Micheaux), or “Jenn” for short, and his children Cassie, Lizzie, and Tay (Erica Hubbard, Rhyon Nicole Brown, and Mishon Ratliff respectively).
The conflicts—between the personal lives of the characters and their antagonistic environment—loom for the others, as well. Jenn Sutton, the tireless mother figure, whose work as a nurse marks her as a healer and caretaker, strives to support Eddie’s dream for the family. She frequently acknowledges Eddie’s sacrifices, mindful of his job’s demands. No mother in her right mind would want to live in a place where her children get bullied, caught up in armed robberies, or held hostage. No supportive wife wants to see her husband nearly railroaded by a public outcry in the aftermath of his efforts to thwart that aforementioned armed robbery and save his daughter. Yet, these things happen, and Jenn nevertheless resolves to stay, dig in, and plant roots in the Heights.
She shares her husband’s vision, determined to set an example of commitment and perseverance. The big leap for this series is figuring out why Jenn would go along with moving to the Heights, if indeed the place has such a bad reputation (“I was always taught not to even slow down through the Heights,” she remarks). That’s a good point, but the answer rests with Eddie, who still remembers the area fondly and believes in its potential, not to mention his having a department of police buddies theoretically at his disposal. Also, there’s the fact that even the ‘worst’ neighborhoods aren’t constant war zones. In real life, even ‘bad’ neighborhoods have some quiet time.
The Sutton kids face the unenviable task of joining the ranks of a new school and community. They work to find their place in all of this newness, as they deal with the stress of their parents’ professions, not to mention the pressures of youth and gaining experience. Cassie combats the jealousy and enmity of her peers, not to mention Eddie’s overprotective nature, when she gets involved in an interracial relationship with Charles Antoni (Robert Adamson). Lizzie’s gift for basketball is initially overlooked at her new school. That is, until she proves she’s got skills.
Later, as she deals with peer pressure, she catches flack for being attracted to an unpopular but intelligently charming boy at her school. Then there’s poor Taylor Sutton, nicknamed “Tay”. Not only does he get extorted by bullies, but some of the other kids in the neighborhood are convinced he’s not ‘black’ enough. He actually got pushed into the bushes over this.
Lincoln Heights handles all of this rather well, usually with multiple conflicts brewing at once. What it doesn’t do so well, believe it or not, is confront racial issues directly. Take, for instance, Tay’s problem with not being ‘black’ enough for acceptance by the neighborhood boys. Jenn tells him, “The Black experience is not monolithic,” meaning that there was no single standard for how to be a ‘black’ person. So far, so good, in terms of plausibility, although it’s kind of sad this issue is still relevant.
Later, when he again crosses paths with one of the boys who teased him, Tay repeats his mother’s observation, saying, “You’re so sad. You actually think that blackness has to do with the way you talk or the clothes you wear…There’s no monolithic black experience.” This of course elicits confusion (“Mono who?”). It’s not authentic that the bully would just walk away like a wounded puppy in response to Tay’s confident recitation, but that’s what happens. It’s too pat and tidy, too quick to preach its message, too forced. Moreover, I’m unconvinced that Tay has had the time and experience he needs to truly absorb the lesson he is so fearlessly passing along. It’s more like rote memorization.
Another problem is that Lincoln Heights tends to walk familiar genre lines, which undermines the originality of its character conflicts. It can be tender and introspective like 7th Heaven, which offsets its relative grit on the police drama front. In many ways, it takes FX’s intense police drama The Shield and tweaks it for a family oriented audience. Action sequences use the shaky camera technique as The Shield did, along with the split-screen viewing of 24. Where The Shield‘s Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) was an effective but crooked cop, Eddie Sutton goes by the book. Vic Mackey beat suspects, skimmed drug money from the streets, and cut corners, and alternated his personality between wearing a scowl and a smile, depending on which would get him what he wanted. Eddie Sutton is rigid, backed by principle, almost to a fault, and seemingly incapable of subterfuge.
In The Shield‘s pilot episode, Vic Mackey commits his original sin of killing another officer and covering it up. Mackey commits this murder to keep the officer from building a case against him for his illegal activities. This secret haunts him for the remainder of the series. In the pilot of Lincoln Heights, Eddie Sutton’s original sin is shooting and killing a gang member during an armed robbery gone bad, and the incident likewise sticks with Eddie. Where Mackey gets away with his crime, unless you count the weight of his conscience as a punishment, Eddie Sutton goes through a very public ordeal over his shooting despite his innocence. Mackey’s wife worked as a nurse, like Eddie’s, and the wives’ nursing professions on both shows often supplemented the police work. Although the action sequences are generally executed well, there’s a sense that they are slightly worn from previous use.
As we know now, Lincoln Heights made it through four seasons. Ultimately, the longevity of the show depended on how long it could sustain its premise. In other words, how long could the Suttons live in the Heights? Either they were going to realize the violence and crime in the neighborhood couldn’t be lessened, or they would see that their efforts had resulted in positive change. Eddie would have to do more than just run after neighborhood thugs and gang members to keep viewers interested.
Also, the Sutton kids would have to get older, and if the kids move away from the Heights, as kids do when they go to college, then Eddie’s personal and professional conflicts might become more manageable. Hooray for Eddie, but too bad for dramatic tension. Either way, these inevitable dilemmas necessarily force the characters into making some hard choices, one of which (moving out, and fast!) is explored repeatedly in Season One.