Sunday, September 26, 2010

Undercovers - 1976's breakout hit!

It's fall preview season, 2010. I'm African-American and I am 46 going on 47 and Julie Andrews is certainly NOT singing a twee song to me about passing from one age to the next.

Within my lifetime I have seen TV shows that have used blackface for "comedic" effect ("Soap" "Designing Women", although the character was castigated for using it and some unnamed and long-forgotten unsuccessful pilot that had someone blacking up before they did some horrible faux-Polynesian dance) show after show after show where there was only one Black character, blessedly few that starred Blacks, almost none of them being dramas and a blessed few of them being particularly good.

On the other side of things, we are now in an environment that a show that features two attractive people of color that are happily married and high-level spies is, in and of itself, no big deal and that's a good thing.

Is it enough?

J.J. Abrams' new show, "Undercovers" features Boris Kodjoe and Gugu(lethu) Mbatha-Raw as two ex-spies, running a successful restaurant and are pulled back into the game by the somewhat too cranky Gerald McRaney (because federal law requires McRaney to be in a TV show once every five or so years). The show breaks no ground, which is no well...crime, heh-heh, but not every show needs to break ground and push the envelope to be good. "Modern Family" for example, is not a pioneering form of new television, however, it is enormously funny and deserving of an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy. You want an African-American spy? Bill Cosby starred in "I Spy" with Robert Culp, a year later, Godfrey Cambridge guest-starred on the "Dick Van Dyke Show" in the "Man From My Uncle" episode. You want 'em married? Well, Tim and Daphne Maxwell-Reid tried the married crime-fighting act in the regrettable "Snoops". So, why don't I just shut the heck up? Isn't it enough that, rare as it is that there have been enough people of color doing the spying? Can't I just watch Lance Reddick in "Fringe" and be a happy chappy?

Well, I am no longer worried that if "Undercovers" bombs I will never see the like of it again. I don't cringe at their sassy janitor (there is no sassy janitor). They are happy in their marriage and they express that, they are successful in business, they OWN their own business, they don't speak in some kind of urban patois that is someone's dreadful assumption of "how all of them talk". If it is canceled this year, I doubt that the NAACP will march or start a write-in campaign.

To which I say, hooray!

Let's take race out of it for a bit.


So, what do we have? I have two leads that work quite well together, the lead's sister needs more to do, but I have a show with a bit of a crutch. I'd like to say that Mark Harmon is not only a good actor, he is a durable one. He was quite good in "St. Elsewhere" and he has found a nice home on "NCIS". He is durable, because he has survived "Charlie Grace", which may have turned into a better show, but had a lousy pilot episode. "Grace", among other things had characters speaking in unison and "Undercovers" did this, several times. Ewwww. Also, the initial show's plot was predictable as a James Bond movie and their assistant-as-worshipful lapdog MUST be toned down.

I was and am still thrilled that Barack Obama was elected President. I also feel that his election was good, but far too late in a country like the United States, which touts itself as being dynamic and progressive. Other countries have elected women to run the country, while Hillary Clinton had people yelling, "Iron my shirt!" at her on the campaign trail.

So is, "Undercovers", enough?

Let's put race back in the picture.


Were this 1976, I would call this show a success. There would have been nothing like it on the air at the time and it may have been attacked by many as unrealistic and I mean by Whites and Blacks alike. So, huzzah for progress that this scenario is not unrealistic. For that Unreal and Offensive Booby Prize, take a look at "Outlaw" over on Mippyville TV.

I admire J.J. Abrams. I like "Fringe" and unlike some purists, I liked the latest "Star Trek" movie and I say this as someone who watched the original series quite a bit. However, while we are in front of the camera, how many are behind it? I am not saying that the writing or directing will automatically improve solely by adding Black people, but I still kvell knowing that we can be trusted AND respected on both sides of the camera. Is there a Black writer or director that has the sway of a J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon, per se?

Folks, the time has come that we can no longer accept or expect that the critical praise that has the hint of "well, considering that it's _______ people (fill in your ethnicity of choice) it's pretty good". The fact that it is an Abrams show is a very good thing, because he has a name that raises the right eyebrows, but this show needs to be better. If it wants to be frothy, fine. Not everything needs to be "The Sopranos", but if I can figure out what is going to happen plot-wise and feel almost no suspense, there is trouble afoot.

The only groundbreaking aspect of this show is more a personal one. Years ago, I might have been compelled to defend this show, or at least keep my trap shut, because of the various and sundry things that I like about the show. The slightly better news is that we are here. The TV landscape is slooooowly reflecting the populace but we are nicely entrenched and I'd like to see more of that. Now, I can say that "Undercovers" needs improvement and sleep without the guilt of having uttered the sentence, "Yes, Clifton Davis lives with his Mother, but at least it's HIS barber shop".

Now, having said my piece about that, the ads for "Outsourced" make me cringe, there are 0 shows that feature an Indian family in a drama, Latinos have surpassed African-Americans in US population, yet I see ONE show that stars one and that's "Outlaw", drat it. Asian-Americans are hovering around the periphery, so, yeah, I still think things are better, but we're still mired in 21st century mores with 20th century attitudes toward race.

It's not enough.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Very Special Episode? Hmm...

The Onion AV Club has a new-ish feature called, "A Very Special Episode". I enjoyed what I have read and heartily encourage you to read this entry. For those who don't wish to read it, I will summarize a point that raises my eyebrow, which is to say that this entry (rather rightly) takes to task this show and episode on the grounds of what Harlan Ellison called, "defanged dissent", which is essentially the flaccid attempt of a show to be relevant.

Once again, I enjoyed the article, but it missed a point, which, honestly, may be made in another post. While we can laugh and point derisively at the silly things folks did in 1972 in tv land, this still goes on!

Let's take the example of not a comedy, but a New York-based drama, "Without a Trace". The episode in question is "In Extremis", from 2002. The plot and SPOILER will follow. A doctor of Saudi Arabian descent, Anwar Samir, vanishes after a disagreement with his supervisor and an argument with his girlfriend. Given the story's and real life's proximity to 9/11, the episode is trenchant. There is nothing really wrong with the idea behind this story, but a few things bugged me about this show:

1. The main characters went to a mosque (or was it a rec center? Never mind) and they interview one of the people there during prayer and the fellow they speak to is short with them and unsmiling. He was interrupted during prayers, but the scene played to me to make the man out as a humorless fanatic, rather than a devout Muslim.

2. Samir is dating a White woman (more about why I'm bugged about this in a bit).




They find Samir, at the hospital. SWAT has been called. It turns out there is a bomb in the hospital and he is trying to get folks out. Nothing wrong there, but he, for some odd reason, is holding a gun. And, sure as, sorry, sure as night follows day, one of the highly trained, never-crack-under-pressure trained snipers shoots and kills Samir.


The writer, Francisco Castro, who may be a fine fellow with political views that align with mine has basically written "Uncle Anwar's Bayt" as unsubtle as this comes across. The character is a doctor, which I have no bones about, since I enjoy seeing portrayals of people of color in high-level professions, but Castro continues to stack the deck:

- He's a bit of a hothead
- He's dating outside of his ethnicity
- He hangs around stone-faced folks that dress funny

I get it, I'm not supposed to like the guy, if I have a beef against Muslims. I get it, I get it.

He is overheard mentioning blowing up something, but he was talking about Shea Stadium and he was really stating that he hates the stadium and that someone should blow it up and build another one because it's in bad shape and a nurse is seen looking back at him, as if to say, "why, that raghead wants to destroy America".

The gist of this episode is not without merit. The current dust-up about what is or is not to be built near the former site of the World Trade Center makes some of this episode sadly relevant, however, I would say that not only does it come across with the subtlety of a flying mallet, it has the element of what writer James Blish called an "idiot plot". The real loose cannon is a fellow named Kamal Kahn, who not only has put a bomb in the building but has a gun as well! Yes, friends, we must all fear the Mad BomberShooter. One wonders if Kamal has gone to knife-throwing school to make sure that the folks that escape the explosions and bullets feel his special brand of Muslim steel justice.

The 1967 movie, "In the Heat of the Night" was an attempt to strike a similar blow for racial equality. This is a laudable goal, considering that Sidney Poitier is an articulate and charismatic (albeit sexless) lead. Keeping that in mind, it was not enough that he was a good cop and a decent man, it was necessary to lower the intelligence and likability of the White characters as well. This is a well-worn formula: in "To Sir, With Love", he is a teacher, but in a lower working-class neighborhood, in "A Patch of Blue" Poitier educates a blind southern White trash girl with even trashier parents, etc.

The challenge was and must be work that can put in a dollop of justice and fairness without beating someone over the head with it. Two examples that I recall do this are, were "Frasier" ("The Matchmaker") which very nicely dealt with homosexuality with a light touch and not a single stereotype (the gay character in question is gay,unapologetic, successful not comically effeminate and while he doesn't get the guy, he also takes his rejection with good humor) and "Frank's Place" ("Frank Joins a Club") in which the main character is given a choice of New Orleans Social Clubs to join. One is made up of working-class men that honor the coach drivers and the other is the tony Capital C club which historically discriminated against "colored" people, while allowing in Creoles (note which word has a Capital C).

Which brings me back to the column that sparked this one. Once again, I enjoyed it and found it thoughtful, I wonder if, in it's description of defanged dissent it has somehow fallen into it's own trap, taking to task a show that is thirty-eight years old, although it was repeated incessantly, while bemoaning that very few of his friends know of the groundbreaking improv troupe, "The Committee" (while not, oddly, mentioning the troupe that two of its alumni came from, which was Second City/The Compass Players).

The revolution will not be televised.

It may not be blogged, either.