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The "word' is out on "Any Day Now'

Nig+ger _ (nig'er) n. (slang) Negro.

1. usually offensive: a black person.

2. usually offensive: a member of any dark-skinned race.

USAGE _ It now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English. Its use by and among blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive, but . . . it is otherwise a word expressive of racial hatred and bigotry.

_ From Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (online version).

Imagine the worst word you can think of.

A word that can stop conversation by its very utterance. A word that can cause a fistfight, lose a job, spark a riot or bring a tear.

If there's any word that holds that power in 21st century America, it's "nigger."

Now imagine basing two hours of prime time television around the word's power.

For the season finale of her drama Any Day Now, executive producer Nancy Miller decided to tackle how Americans of all races view this incendiary term.

The word appears 73 times in tonight's episode, focused on lead character Rene Jackson, a black attorney, defending a black high school basketball star charged with manslaughter after striking a white teen who called him by the epithet.

Even in-your-face shows such as NYPD Blue have used the word only once or twice in a single show. So Any Day Now's, um, liberal use of such an explosive epithet is either a daring creative act or the riskiest bid for attention a cult cable show has attempted.

"(Writing this) was a three- or four-month process . . . trying to figure out how we felt about it . . . and (asking) why are there so many rules about using it?" said the producer, admitting that Lifetime's Standards and Practices department actually got them to cut seven uses of the n-word from tonight's episode. "This power it has . . . is it ever going to go away? And should it?"

During the show, Jackson argues that using the word is like handling a lethal weapon. She explores its etymology, uses and impact in her defense of the sports star, whose fisticuffs caused the white youth to stumble, hit his head on a piece of concrete and die.

Miller first got the idea, in part, from a news article about a black grade school student who was suspended for hitting a white child who called him the n-word. Moved by the unfairness of it all _ the white student was never disciplined, she says _ the producer decided to craft a two-part story exploring the issues, dubbed "It's More Than Just a Word."

Convinced that, for white people, using the word is like pointing a loaded gun, Miller was surprised to find some black writers on her staff disagreed. They said rappers and black comedians such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock have used the term so much it has lost its pejorative power.

"Some people (said), "I hope 100 years from now, we're saying it like we say, hey, buddy,' " says Miller, who is white and never actually says the word during a 45-minute interview.

"But I don't think it should ever mean nothing," adds the Louisiana native, who grew up in Oklahoma and still visits her parents in Birmingham, Ala. "Maybe it's because I'm from the South, and I know the hatred and feelings behind that word. If we forget what it means, then we've forgotten a huge, horrible part of our history."

Still, series star Lorraine Toussaint, who plays lawyer Jackson, found herself clashing with Miller over a scene in which her character was supposed to argue that the n-word was just like any other insult.

"Literally, we sat in a parking lot for 2{ hours, because I just couldn't accept that," says Toussaint, a Julliard-trained actor whose credits include NBC's Law & Order and HBO's If These Walls Could Talk. "For black people, even when we use it with each other, it's not just another word. As (the show's) primary black character . . . to have me react that way . . . it's irresponsible."

Miller and Toussaint eventually compromised. Jackson says her father taught that the word has power only when black people react to it _ a thin attempt to defuse the righteous indignation of her white friend, Mary Elizabeth "M.E." Sims (played by Designing Women's Annie Potts).

"Then he was one wrong nigger, wasn't he?" Sims shoots back, trying to make a point by shocking Jackson into anger _ which she does.

"Here we go again . . . another moment on Any Day Now where you're so uncomfortable, but you just can't change the channel," says Toussaint, laughing.

"When people see M.E. and I "go there' with each other . . . (I hope) it gives our viewing audience permission to go into areas of their lives that are oftentimes taboo," she adds. "Something they've been curious about, but were afraid to bring up with a black co-worker or friend."

But does the show inadvertently demystify a word that deserves to remain largely unspoken?

"When we set out to do this, we never said, "Let's try to say it as much as we can,' " counters Miller. "But I don't think we tried to censor ourselves, either. If this was what needed to be said in a piece of dialogue, we just said it."

That has become a central feature of Any Day Now, a series focused on the lengthy, sometimes prickly relationship between baby boomer-age pals Jackson and Sims.

The action vaults between scenes from their early childhood and the present day in Birmingham, Ala., where Jackson is an upwardly mobile attorney and Sims is a housewife and sometime freelance writer.

For three seasons now, the show has emerged as a quiet hit, notching double-digit improvements in viewership this year and emerging as the third-highest rated regularlay scheduled cable series, according to Mediaweek magazine.

For those who might doubt the relevance of tonight's episode, Miller cites a March 4 appearance by U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd on the political show Fox News Sunday.

Byrd _ a former Ku Klux Klan member who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 during his early tenure as a senator _ said that race problems are largely in the past and people talk about such things too much.

"My old mom told me, "Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time," said the West Virginia Democrat, 83.

Though Byrd later apologized, Toussaint says Byrd's statement revealed his true heart.

"Obviously he has downgraded certain white people into that category as well," she adds. "But these news events have created a platform for our show."

In the show, Jackson explores the rules of using the n-word that Byrd _ to his momentary political detriment _ seemed to forget.

She questions jurors of color, asking if they've ever been called it. She produces an etymologist (played by BET Tonight host Tavis Smiley), who outlines the word's history in America _ evoking images of lynchings, racial oppression and victimization.

It's an investigation that proved enlightening for Toussaint, who says she has rarely used the word.

"Doing this episode has been fascinating, watching the evolution of the word . . . watching as (black people) have reclaimed this word . . . as we have reclaimed our humanity," she says. "It has made me question everything. Should I use it? Should I not? I haven't gotten any answers."

For Miller, the thrill of doing Any Day Now lies in probing such areas _ excavating issues where network TV fears to tread.

Despite months of agitation about increasing ethnic diversity issues on network TV shows, March's crop of new TV series only proves Miller's points.

Among the dozen or so shows making debuts this month, only ABC's cop comedy The Job and Damon Wayans' sitcom My Wife and Kids have more than one person of color in their core casts.

That's a mistake Miller refuses to make. "People are getting sick of the word "diversity' . . . but I learned the power of diversity on this show," she says.

"Even if I'm doing a story about a white girl in Minnesota, I'm going to have black writers on my staff. Because we've all got to start writing from points of view that are not white."

Toussaint just hopes tonight's episode sparks some honest discussion.

"The war now is within. It's not about colored bathrooms anymore . . . it's about colored thinking," she says. "You have to ask, "Are you still thinking in a way that doesn't support equality?' "

AT A GLANCE: Any Day Now's two-hour season finale airs at 9 p.m. on Lifetime. Grade: A-. Rating: TV-14.