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Cable tops broadcast TV in reflecting diversity

Hadjii wrote all 10 episodes of the new BET series Somebodies, directed three of them and stars as underachieving college student Scottie.

BET

Hadjii wrote all 10 episodes of the new BET series Somebodies, directed three of them and stars as underachieving college student Scottie.

Just 15 minutes into Black Entertainment Television's first scripted series Somebodies comes a moment that proves you are watching a show more groundbreaking than anyone expected.

The lead character, perpetual college student Scottie, is enduring a lecture from his adviser — a blunt, plainspoken sister who warns him to graduate before he turns into one of "those people."

Her description: "(They have) rims that cost more than the car. Thirty-three-year-old grandparents. Sneaking chicken into the movie theater. Red Kool-Aid stains around the baby's mouth."

Seconds later, she asks a white co-worker to grab a lunch salad in the King's English and the satire is complete — referencing black class conflict, ghetto culture and the two languages black folks speak every day in one neat, sidesplitting package.

"It's so real, it can make you uncomfortable," said Hadjii, the auteur who wrote all 10 episodes, directed three and stars as Scottie. "It's kind of like the inside joke that we all know is real, but you didn't want us to air the dirty laundry."

Hadjii's look at the life of an underachieving black college student offers a new vision of young black America from a channel often derided for booty-shaking music videos and low-rent reality shows.

Based on a buzzed-about film Hadjii unveiled at Sundance, Somebodies unspools like a TV version of the low-budget independent films insurgent young black directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton and Keenen Ivory Wayans created in the '80s.

And Somebodies might achieve one more thing: showing Hollywood how to create a racially diverse, creatively satisfying TV show that explodes stereotypes instead of wallowing in them.

Look around the cable dial, and you see a host of similar new shows: ABC Family's Samurai Girl miniseries; Bravo's Real Housewives of Atlanta; Oxygen's reality show on the family life of rapper Coolio; VH1's reality show with Korean comic Margaret Cho; and ABC Family's ambitious drama about a black family in Los Angeles, Lincoln Heights.

That's a serious contrast to the top five TV networks, where not a single new series this fall features a person of color as the sole star (TV Guide's last two issues previewing the fall season featured no minority actors among nine people on two different covers).

So what gives? Why do so-called "reality" shows, cable series and especially kid-friendly programs find it so much easier to reflect the nation's ethnic diversity?

"The truth is, there are six networks and 500 or so cable channels; inevitably, cable is going to reflect a broader slice of life," said Fenton Bailey, documentarian and producer of such reality series as Tori & Dean: Inn Love, Pam: Girl on the Loose and Million Dollar Listing.

"But also, in the reality arena, you need variety, you need characters, you need difference," said Bailey. "It is rapacious and it continually needs new people. It's similar to the way rap appeared; people thought it was a niche genre, but eventually rap overtook rock 'n' roll to become the new rock."

Entertainment Weekly noted white characters over-represented by an average 9 percent on the five biggest networks. CBS was the worst, with 79.3 percent white characters, compared with 66.2 percent white people in the U.S. population.

The networks' solution? As before, actors of color are still tacked onto series after they are developed, but bigger minority stars are taking meatier supporting roles.

So Lucy Liu has joined the cast of ABC's Dirty Sexy Money, Angela Bassett and her husband, Courtney Vance, will appear on NBC's ER, and Matrix star Laurence Fishburne soon joins CBS's hit forensics drama CSI.

Fishburne in particular breaks new ground. Entering as star William Petersen leaves, he will become the first black character to top CBS's highly-rated CSI franchise.

But the man who has played everyone from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to one of the Tuskegee Airmen has a surprising admission: He hadn't thought about the role that way.

"I have to really sort my feelings out about that," he said during an interview last month. "Nobody's really mentioned this to me until now."

That's tough to believe, mostly because CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler admitted months ago the network was adding characters of color for ethnic balance. But Fishburne's response isn't uncommon around Hollywood.

Ten years ago, when the NAACP and TV critics lambasted a fall schedule similarly lacking in diversity, actors, producers and network executives were passionate and vocal about the issue. This year, faced with the same problem, the industry's "diversity fatigue" is thick enough to slice.

"There's no conscious decision," said Seth MacFarlane, creator of Fox's animated hit Family Guy. "For some reason . . . it's male-dominated."

But some say all it takes is a little effort and confidence that your audience wants to see the characters you're developing.

"It's very simple; we think about it, we work at it, we talk about it," said Gary Marsh, entertainment president for the Disney Channel, who described casting a black family for a new series without changing the script, which wasn't written specifically for characters of color.

"I am hoping that this generation of kids who were raised on (our shows) have that same sense of a color-blind world as they grow up," he said.

At Sombodies, Hadjii just hopes to leverage his opportunity on BET into more mainstream work, widening the diversity door on TV the way Singleton, Lee and Wayans did for film.

"I guess it's up to black people to do something," said the filmmaker. "It doesn't mean picketing or marching. It means us getting to the computer keyboard and making it happen — making it hot."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

.to watch

Where diversity rules

Here's where to find some of the most interesting multicultural portrayals on TV these days:

Somebodies, 10 p.m. Tuesdays, BET: Filmed with

creator Hadjii's pals in

Athens, Ga., this offhand comedy about a directionless college student slyly skewers just about every hot button issue in black life with disarmingly good humor.

Lincoln Heights, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC Family: This powerful series about a black policeman who moves his middle-class family back to the poor, crime-ridden neighborhood he grew up in is criminally unseen.

Dexter, 10 p.m. Sept. 28, Showtime: Jimmy Smits joins the cast as a Cuba-born prosecutor, amping up the Hispanic flavor in a series about a Miami killer of killers.

Cable tops broadcast TV in reflecting diversity 09/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 4:28pm]
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