The two most intriguing sitcom ideas of the season involve a subject that television usually tries to avoid. Both ABC's recently retired Buddies and Fox's The Show concern the endlessly complicated ways in which African-Americans interact with whites and the dominant white culture. Both series have been widely critiqued for their (very relative) boldness, but the bottom line is that neither of them accomplishes the prime-time fundamental: They just ain't funny.
Meanwhile, over on upstart UPN, true pop-cultural fieldwork is being accomplished on Moesha. This deceptively unassuming sitcom was understandably perceived, at first, as merely a TV vehicle for recording star Brandy, currently sitting near the top of the charts with her breathy hit single from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, ''Sittin' up in My Room.'' It turns out, however, that Moesha is doing more than just cashing in on Brandy's music-world success. As 16-year-old Moesha Mitchell, the bright-eyed, sassy Brandy Norwood (she uses her full name in the show's credits) heads up a series about something even more unnerving to the average television programmer than the notion of exploring race relations: Moesha is interested in presenting an African-American worldview that finds the white experience irrelevant whenever it isn't downright annoying.
Moesha proceeds from the assumption that viewers are hip to current slang, down with the latest pop-culture references, and also know who Zora Neale Hurston is (Moesha cites the late novelist as one of her role models). A typical exchange on this show: Moesha's dad (William Allen Young) talks about how much he loves the music of Rufus and Chaka Khan, and Moesha's teen next-door neighbor Hakeem (Lamont Bentley) responds, ''Oh, yeah she the one that does all the Mary J. Blige songs.'' Moesha's best friend, Kim (Countess Vaughn) who gets regular laughs from her exaggerated use of the word fine (''foiiine!'') is a real card. When Moesha said recently, ''I'm into more adult things now,'' Kim chided, ''Like what? Sippin' on prune juice and watchin' CBS?''
It's not as if there aren't other likable family-centered sitcoms with all-black casts. Sister, Sister, a show about twinkly twins that benefits greatly from the presence of Jackee Harry as a bawdy mother, is a charmer; Robert Townsend's The Parent 'Hood tends to be preachy but keeps it lively. Family Matters, now in its seventh season, has managed to make Uber-nerd Steve Urkel (the increasingly heroic and adult Jaleel White) into a fascinatingly weird character. And The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, now in its final weeks, has proved a fine showcase for Will Smith's understatedly cool comic style.
But to the extent that the aforementioned sitcoms are content to remain black variations on white-cast comedies that have preceded them, some originality is lacking. The only show to which Moesha can really be compared is Fox's little-seen gem South Central (1994), which, while also delivering laughs, offered a thorny look at life in a rough section of Los Angeles. Not coincidentally, one of Moesha's creators, Ralph Farquhar, was one of the minds behind South Central.
Perhaps acknowledging that South Central's downer of a setting was one reason it didn't attract viewers, Farquhar has moved his new show into the bright, solid middle class of Los Angeles, where Moesha's biggest trauma is receiving a shiny new Saturn when what she really wanted was a Jeep. It's a measure of Moesha's intelligent tenderness, however, that such a plotline isn't played out to make Mo seem a spoiled brat. The show places her life in a perspective so vivid and empathetic that we share her disappointment, even as we recognize the superficiality of her dilemma. Smart, fast, and confident, Moesha sets a new standard for kid-friendly family entertainment.