While the major networks have consistently failed to adjust their primetime schedules to reflect their audience’s “diversity,” UPN has gone another way in recent years. This season’s sitcom line-up — including Girlfriends, Second Time Around, One on One, Half & Half, and Eve — has scored well with their intended audiences, but haven’t quite crossed over. By contrast, UPN’s dramas — for instance, the Star Trek franchise, — appeal primarily to white audiences.
Now comes Kevin Hill, designed to appeal to everyone. Starring Taye Diggs as the title character, the show features various demographic groups: men, women, straights, gays, blacks, whites, Latinos, adults, children. This calculated range draws attention to Hill’s expanding world. Before now, he’s led what he thinks is an ideal life. A successful, cut-throat lawyer by day and master of one-night stands by night, he finds his dream existence compromised after a cousin’s death leaves Hill custodian of his 10-month-old niece, Sarah. When his boss expresses displeasure with the new demands on Hill’s time, the young lawyer quits and accepts a position with a smaller firm run by women. Suddenly, he finds himself struggling with childcare issues, adjusting to an all-female work environment, and adapting to the presence of a gay nanny in his home.
The concept of unexpected parenthood is nothing new. UPN explored it in last year’s miserable sitcom Rock Me, Baby, as have numerous films, including Raising Helen and Three Men and a Baby. The plot device has frequently been used to breathe new life into series on their last legs (Ally McBeal). So what does Kevin Hill bring to the table that is fresh?
First, its protagonist is atypical. Whereas the stereotype of the irresponsible African American father is too prevalent on tv, Kevin Hill presents a positive role model for black fathers. Hill may assume his parenting duties reluctantly, but once he adjusts to the fact that his only other choice is putting the child into the social services system, he displays all the characteristics of a loving and nurturing, somewhat clueless, father. Even Hill’s dead cousin was a decent guy: though far from a law-abiding citizen, it is also clear that he placed his child’s interest above his own.
Second, the baby doesn’t just upset Hill’s routine, but radically alters his existence, from work environment to home life to social status. His best friend and former coworker, Dame (Jon Seda), never hesitated to coax him into macho behavior on the job and in bars. In his new position, Hill finds himself relating to women in a professional manner, without the insincere compliments and cheesy pick-up lines. His efforts are complicated by the fact that one of his current coworkers, Veronica (Kate Levering), is also one of his former one-night conquests. At last he notices that women can be as career-driven and hard-edged as any man. In addition, he gains insights from his nanny, George (Patrick Breen). Apparently the first gay man with whom Hill has knowingly engaged in conversation, level-headed George comes with a strong grasp not only of childcare but adult relationships as well.
Hill’s metamorphosis from self-centered stud to compassionate caregiver is, of course, the series’ major story arc. In the second episode, he’s assigned to represent a celebrity in her custody battle over her daughter. The old Hill would have gone for the win at all costs. The new Hill, enlightened as to the responsibilities of parenting and the importance of honest relationships, places the child’s best interests first. When he learns that charges against his client have merit, such as substance abuse, he negotiates a deal that allows the girl to live with her aunt while mom goes to rehab. Likewise, he is willing to abandon his first night out with the guys to buy formula after George calls him to tell him Sarah is out.
What keeps Kevin Hill from becoming a tv version of Baby Boom is the equal time devoted to all aspects of his life. While the “new baby” storyline is a focal point, the argument could also be made that Kevin Hill is a courtroom drama, as each episode devotes considerable time to the case du jour; his life is changed by Sarah’s appearance, but doesn’t come to a grinding halt. This layering of storylines keeps the show from being nauseatingly cute. Compelling tensions emerge in smart writing and Diggs’ embodiment of a character who is simultaneously naïve and worldly; his befuddlement is as endearing as his macho posturing is amusing.
Early ratings indicate that Kevin Hill will be around for a while, which is good news for both UPN and viewers. As Hill continues to evolve, Sarah will grow into childhood. His education will never cease and the potential for new lessons is boundless. It is this element that attracts viewers from all demographics. The situations depicted on Kevin Hill are not limited to identity categories, but are broadly familiar: sudden changes, new environments, friends, and romance, taking responsibility for another person. Other networks could learn from Kevin Hill; give viewers smart scripts performed by talented actors, and the “diversity” will take care of itself.