Under One Roof
It the risk of sounding terribly old-fashioned and preachy, let me say that if there were more families like the Langstons of the new drama Under One Roof, America would be a better place. No, really. Ron and Maggie Langston (Joe Morton and Vanessa Bell Calloway) live in a big old house in a middle-class section of Seattle. Ron’s an ex-Marine who’s just opened a hardware store; Maggie is a full-time mom who’s just decided to return to the workforce. They have a 15-year-old daughter, Charlie (Essence Atkins), who is boy crazy and status mad, and an 10-year-old son, Derrick (Ronald Joshua Scott), who’s a dog-crazy, ice-cream-loving diabetic.
Downstairs lives Ron’s father, Neb (James Earl Jones), a recent widower who is the ultimate paterfamilias, protective and strict. He lives with his adult daughter, Beverly (Monique L. Ridge), who prefers to be called Ayisha. ”You can call yourself Queen Whoop-Dee-Do for all I care — you’re my daughter and I’m calling you Beverly,” he says tartly. Neb is foster-parenting a street kid, Marcus (Merlin Santana), who’s no end of trouble.
Under One Roof was developed by producer-director Thomas Carter (Equal Justice). In a letter to the press, Carter has expressed his desire to ”humanize African-Americans in a manner which has not been seen before in a weekly drama,” and on the basis of the first couple of episodes, it looks as if he’s succeeding.
Sitcoms long ago figured out how to portray African-American experience in a way that acknowledges cultural distinctions without presenting the characters as the objects of a morality play or a civics lesson — and this is as true of Martin as it is of The Cosby Show. But serious work about African-American family life, when it is permitted to dent the small screen at all, is frequently trite stuff, too earnest in its attempt to make blacks just as banally sincere as whites. Last season’s notable exception to the rule, the heartbreakingly intelligent South Central on Fox, was erroneously perceived as being too downbeat to be a crowd-pleaser; I remain convinced that if Fox had stood by the series — it kept Herman’s Head on for three seasons, for Pete’s sake — South Central would have caught on.
And how likely is Under One Roof to catch on? Well, opposite ABC’s Full House, it has its work cut out for it. Granted, House is fading a bit in the ratings, but Under One Roof is really more of a 9 p.m. show — grown-ups are most likely to be caught up in its vivid portrayals of marital closeness and spats, of generational squabbles and reconciliations.
In any case, it’s hard to imagine that the cast could be any better. Morton and Calloway make a marvelous couple — ambitious, complicated, loving, and sorely tested. And Jones modulates his often-overwhelming presence here, scaling down his performance to fit that of a retirement-age fellow who’s still feeling the loss of his wife. What I particularly like about Under One Roof is that it isn’t afraid to suggest that parents ought to be active disciplinarians, laying down rules and enforcing them. So much television proceeds from the assumption that kids are uncontrollable brats that the medium is filled with rude people we’d never want under our own roofs.
In Under One Roof, manners matter, and if you think that’s a minor or quaint quality to find novel or praiseworthy, you don’t watch much TV. A-