Anyone interested in examples of ignored black creativity in television need look no further than the almost complete lack of media attention paid to producer Ralph Farquhar, a TV stylist as assured as Steven Bochco or Chris Carter. Farquhar continues to oversee Moesha, starting its fifth-season run. He’s also cocreated the new Moesha spin-off, The Parkers, featuring Moesha’s wisecracking, booty-shaking best friend, Kim Parker (the pouty, prickly, peerless Countess Vaughn). Kim now attends Santa Monica Junior College — along with her equally gaudy 36-year-old mom, Nikki, played by stand-up comic Mo’Nique.
The running joke is, of course, that mother and daughter are so alike they constantly cramp each other’s flamboyant style. Some of the gags are predictable — the first day of school, both wear the same garish outfit and want to pledge the same sorority. But Farquhar’s series — he was also responsible for the top-notch, short-lived 1994 Fox inner-city comedy-drama South Central — are distinctive for the way they aren’t so much interested in what’s said as in how it’s said and what it means. With Farquhar, tone is everything.
For Moesha, this has meant a sitcom about a strongly bonded family that manages to be funny while depicting middle-class black life in a far more problematic, enlightening way than, say, Bill Cosby has managed. Moesha’s dad, go-getter Frank Mitchell (William Allen Young), owns a Saturn dealership, and we’ve seen him struggle with business downturns and ethical dilemmas. In this season’s premiere, Moesha takes a job as a gofer at the hip-hop magazine Vibe (mucho product placement here) and wants her editor-boss to read an unassigned piece she’s written on producer-performer Timbaland.
The plot turns on a comic misunderstanding — she thinks she’s in for sexual harassment when he asks her out to discuss her work; he just wants to proffer some chaste mentoring — yet the episode manages to squeeze in a lot more insight about racial and sexual politics than most shows even attempt, and all without becoming pious or PC.
Farquhar’s Parkers is meant to be a much more low-down, slapsticky sitcom — both Vaughn and Mo’Nique are graduates of the Jackée Harry school of Sassy Black Women Comedy, in which attitude frequently provides the humor that the script does not. (I invariably laugh, for example, every time Kim does her trademark shtick, which is to give an ordinary word what she thinks is a classy pronunciation: ”parties” becomes ”pour-ties,” for example.) Even when she was a second banana on Moesha, there was something sweetly poignant about Kim’s attempts to transcend her up-from-the-ghetto roots, and the college setting of The Parkers, combined with the comic combustion Kim has with her equally ambitious and argumentative mother, promises good, raucous fun.