UPN is a network with an acute identity crisis. I'd hazard that three quarters of its audience thinks of it as the place to go for sitcoms featuring black casts, and that the other quarter is divided between people who tune in for ''WWE Smackdown!,'' ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' or ''Enterprise.'' Even with all of that combined, the UPN lineup can't attract more attention in a whole season than the cable net FX snags for ''The Shield'' in any given week.
Hey, I like ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer'' and I like ''Girlfriends,'' but clearly UPN needs a new flagship series, something to draw a crowd, and Platinum is it. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to create a believable hour-long drama about the rap-music industry and have it not come off as a ''Cedric the Entertainer'' parody sketch? Network television simply doesn't have the freedom -- or until now, the inclination -- to present black entertainment with any degree of conviction, vividness, or wit.
But ''Platinum'' has all that. Cocreated by novelist-screenwriter John Ridley (''Three Kings'') and director-actress Sofia Coppola (''The Virgin Suicides''), with the latter's ''Godfather'' daddy listed as an executive producer, ''Platinum'' is a nighttime soap with a throbbing heart and beat. It's the story of two black siblings, Jackson and Grady Rhames (''Barbershop'''s Jason George and rapper-actor Sticky Fingaz, who was in the underrated 1995 Hughes brothers flick ''Dead Presidents''), who are the founders of an upstart hip-hop company, Sweetback Entertainment. The two episodes that kick off the series this week introduce us to Sweetback's most high-profile act, a white rapper wittily named VersIs, played by the less wittily named Vishiss as a funny-scary cross between Eminem and Vanilla Ice.
From the outset, VersIs is looking like a flash in the pan -- after an initial success, his second CD flopped, landing the Rhames brothers in some serious cash-flow trouble. It also doesn't help that VersIs is a hot-tempered idiot who busts a cap, as the kids probably stopped saying six months ago, into the rear end of his video director (dude was messin' with VersIs' hat, for heaven's sake!), and he nearly sets off a riot in a nightclub when he feels disrespected by a guy who glances at him with deadpan contempt.
Jackson (married with child, a tough but coolly intelligent businessman) and Grady (single, always on-the-make, but possessed with a sharp A&R ear for talent) form a good, if often contentious, team. They share worries over their teenage sister, Jade (pouty Davetta Sherwood), a New York University student who likes to go clubbing and then some with the volatile VersIs. We know no good can come of this, just as we can also see that the Rhames brothers are in for rough times as bigger record companies try to raid Sweetback's talent pool or take over the company.
Ridley, who wrote the pilot, sets ''Platinum'' in real-world Manhattan, naming actual record companies as the brothers' competitors. He not only makes sure the dialogue contains some clever spins (the highest compliment Grady gives a woman is to say he can imagine dating her ''for months''), but Ridley also has a sense of history: The record company's name must owe a debt to Melvin Van Peebles' seminal 1971 blaxploitation film ''Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.'' And the female record-company president (played with cunning by ''Blade'''s N'Bushe Wright), who plots to snatch VersIs away from Jackson and Grady, could be modeled on anyone from Elektra's Sylvia Rhone to Sugar Hill Records' Sylvia Robinson.
UPN's lineup must attract one of the more segregated audiences in prime time (do you think there's any overlap between fans of ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer'' and, say, ''The Parkers''?), but ''Platinum'' might do the trick by integrating its white characters into the drama -- most notably, Steven Pasquale as Sweetback's dedicated legal counsel, David Ross. So far, it's unclear whether the company's dire financial straits exist in spite of David's hard work or because of his slipshod strategies, but either way, he's a supporting character to keep an eye on.
There are times, to be sure, when ''Platinum'' slides into cliché: The second episode has a subplot about an inner-city crusader so flamboyantly loud-mouthed that his corruption is a foregone conclusion, for instance. But Jackson and Grady are guys worth rooting for; here's hoping ''Platinum'' goes the TV-ratings equivalent of multiplatinum.