When it comes to television, we as a viewing nation accept the regular, prominent presence of blacks on sitcoms; in news, talk, sports, and music-video programming; in TV movies from Roots to Don King: Only in America; and in documentaries such as the Emmy award-winning Eyes on the Prize; but not as the stars of weekly dramas. Although in recent years some of the best serious acting to be seen on the small screen has been done by black actors – think of Andre Braugher in Homicide: Life on the Street, or the magnificently varied crew of malefactors in HBO’s prison epic Oz – these performances were part of an ensemble in which whites and Latino actors provided an equal or dominant proportion.
More often, African Americans are relegated to supporting roles whose characters hold positions of authority (James McDaniel’s Lieut. Fancy in NYPD Blue; S. Epatha Merkerson as Lieut. Van Buren on Law & Order) but whose behavior is little explored beyond the commission of their professional duties. The few attempts made early in the ’90s to launch dramas in which blacks played the pivotal roles – everything from the civil-rights-era series I’ll Fly Away to Under One Roof, a family show, which was a sort of 7th Heaven with James Earl Jones as its grumpy granddad – were canceled due to poor ratings.
Why is this so?
That’s the question that looms behind every scene of the new drama City of Angels (which premieres Sunday, Jan. 16), a series with a cast of primarily black actors set in a Los Angeles hospital. Angels stars L.A. Law’s Blair Underwood, Hill Street Blues’ Michael Warren, and feature films’ Vivica A. Fox as doctors and administrators in a poorly equipped but full-of-heart institution whose real boss is the show’s executive producer, Steven Bochco.
Bochco oversaw the creation of the multiple-plotlined ensemble genre, with Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue, his greatest achievements to date. For Angels, Bochco, who is white, is working closely with regular Blue director Paris Barclay, who is black and gets a coexecutive-producer credit here. Together, they apply the now-familiar Bochco formula. The Angels premiere starts off with vulgar jokes – a dead patient is ridiculed by one of the doctors, played by Saturday Night Live’s Garrett Morris, because she was overweight – and then plunges into serious stuff.
Patients’ files are accidentally switched, with near-fatal consequences; a Jewish doctor (Phil Buckman) feels discriminated against by his black colleagues; the new medical director (Fox) launches a hard-nosed campaign to get the hospital, which is called Angels of Mercy, fully accredited and thus eligible for more city funding. Subplots include a grandmother pushed to exhaustion while caring for her grandchildren, who’ve been abandoned by their drug-addicted mother.
Angels also contains the soap-operatic elements that are hallmarks of Bochco productions good and bad. It will come as no great surprise to any savvy TV viewer, for instance, when it’s revealed that Fox used to be romantically involved with Underwood’s acting chief surgeon Dr. Ben Turner. In fact, the primary problem with City of Angels is that nothing comes as a great surprise. Bochco and Barclay, along with cocreator Nicholas Wootton, are seizing the opportunity to produce a black drama during a TV season marked by protests from the NAACP and others about the new fall slate’s lily-white programming. But other than tossing in a few scenes such as a moment when a white doctor fails to recognize a black child’s gray-colored shins as ”ash,” a common black skin condition, there is very little to distinguish the show from any other passably good hour-long series. Which seems to be what Bochco and company actually want – a show that could be played by white actors as easily as by blacks: a standard liberal notion of pop-culture progress.
Of the main actors, Fox is stridently one-note – perpetually peeved – while Underwood is forced to be heroically stoic nonstop; in the first two episodes I’ve seen, he’s had little chance to radiate his considerable warm, humorous side. A show like this requires a villain, and it gets a florid, overacted one in veteran performer Robert Morse as a probably corrupt and possibly evil hospital-board chairman. This is the sort of show that isn’t merely going to imply that Morse is a white devil; it has him announce it to Fox, referring to himself by saying ”When you make a deal with the devil, you’ve got to deal with the devil.”
City of Angels depicts a beleaguered place in need of money and good doctors; the show itself is in need of subtlety and better dialogue. In a season blessed with more quality hour dramas than we’ve had in a long time, it would be great if a black-led drama found a niche in all our viewing schedules, but this one’s wavering quality is the critical condition that will determine its life or death. C+
CBS City of Angels 8-9 PM WEDNESDAYS