News

The CW: Color Wanting? Every night but Sunday

Robert Philpot [Fort Worth Star-Telegram]

When CBS announced that "Survivor: Cook Islands" would begin with four teams organized by racial background -- black, white, Asian, Latino -- it created the first big stink of the new fall TV season. CBS and "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett didn't use the word "segregated," but a lot of writers used it to describe this stunt (which, as we know by now, has been more boring than controversial).

Cynical as it is -- even if it's not designed to foment racial tension or reinforce stereotypes, it's meant to generate ratings -- the new "Survivor's" format does address a certain TV problem. As host Jeff Probst pointed out on CBS' "The Early Show" (which, as Washington Post critic Lisa de Moraes pointed out, has hosts who divide exactly along the new "Survivor's" racial lines), "Cook Islands" increases minority representation on TV.

And, in a way, minorities have been segregated on TV for years. Last season, ABC tried to package "George Lopez" and Freddie Prinze Jr.'s "Freddie" as a Latino-friendly hour, although Prinze told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he hoped the audience didn't view his sitcom as a Latino show. (Actually, they didn't view it enough for it to earn a second season.) And the late UPN has had a long-standing practice of grouping black-oriented comedies on Monday nights, although it made efforts in recent years to branch out to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

With UPN merging with the WB to become the awkwardly named CW, the surviving UPN comedies have been rounded up into a "Sunday-night comedy block," where they'll share time with the "Girlfriends" spin-off, "The Game." At least one of these shows -- Chris Rock's not-so-nostalgic "Everybody Hates Chris" -- is among the best series on TV, and last Sunday night's kick-off episode held up as the hapless Chris (Tyler James Williams) took his first shot at asking a girl on a date and Whoopi Goldberg began a stint as an annoying neighbor.

But "Everybody Hates Chris" has been given the thankless task of having the 7 p.m. EDT time slot, when late-running football games and "60 Minutes" dominate viewing. It deserves to be seen, though; it reflects a time in Rock's life (eighth grade) that many people can relate to, and it features terrific performances by Williams as the young Chris, and Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold as his parents. Rock's narration is also a big plus: His riffs on Esther Rolle, Chris Tucker and his own bad luck with women were among last Sunday's highlights. "Everybody Hates Chris" is often compared to "The Wonder Years," which appears to have been a big influence, but like NBC's "The Office," "Chris" has found its own voice after imitating strong material. It's that rare thing -- a gentle show with an edge.

Edge is something I've often found lacking in these comedies, which also include "All of Us" and "Girlfriends." They do have an easygoing appeal, and "Girlfriends" at its best has some of the smartest female bonding since "Sex and the City."

"The Game" has the same genial air.

Tia Mowry plays Melanie, a pro-football player's girlfriend who is learning things about his world (the rookie third-stringer, amusingly played by Pooch Hall, is also learning things, such as, players generally don't invite their women to away games). There's female bonding here, too, with a bit of friction thrown in. Melanie connects with Tasha (Wendy Raquel Robinson), a single mother who is also her quarterback son's manager, and with Kelly (Brittany Daniel), a white woman who takes heat because she's married to a black player ("Third Watch's" Coby Bell). The appealing cast helps a lot, but "The Game" feels like a watered-down version of BBC America's over-the-top "Footballer$ Wives."

These shows are almost unique, though, in having black leads on network TV -- the only others with that distinction are "America's Next Top Model," hosted by Tyra Banks (weekly "encores" of "ANTM" will round out CW's Sunday nights) and CBS' Dennis Haysbert-led "The Unit." That's not much, but it's more than the number of shows with Latino or Asian leads.

CBS' biggest mistake (or smartest move, I'm not sure which) with the new "Survivor" was being so obvious about it: Was the brainstorm to racially segregate its "tribes" the only way "Survivor" could achieve the diversity it has often lacked? In a way, "Survivor's" spotty record in this regard follows the pattern of scripted TV, which sometimes achieves a racial mix without forcing it ("Grey's Anatomy," "ER"); sometimes seems just as contrived as the new "Survivor" in its bid for racially balanced casting (just about any procedural); and sometimes is almost completely lacking in diversity (only one of CBS' high-rated Monday comedies, "The New Adventures of Old Christine," makes room for a black character). Besides "Gilmore Girls'" Yanic Truesdale and "Veronica Mars'" Percy Daggs III, you won't find many black faces on CW's scripted shows during the rest of the week.

In the end, putting all the black-led scripted series in one block seems like its own sort of segregation.

___

EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS

7 p.m. EDT Sunday

ALL OF US

7:30 p.m. EDT Sunday

GIRLFRIENDS

8 p.m. EDT Sunday

THE GAME

8:30 p.m. EDT Sunday

All on the CW

___

© 2006, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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