Black Lieutenant Syndrome

By Mike Flaherty
Updated December 11, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Law & Order

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Is the plethora of black authority figures on cop shows a casting coup — or a crime?

Call it the black Lieutenant Syndrome (BLS): Ever since the cop drama’s 1970s halcyon days, producers have been casting African Americans as the heads of detective squads, while giving them next to nothing to do dramatically. The latest BLS victim is Martial Law‘s captain, Tom Wright, who joins NYPD Blue‘s James McDaniel, Law &amp Order‘s S. Epatha Merkerson, and — thus far, anyway — Mulder and Scully’s new boss on The X-Files, James Pickens Jr. (who also plays a little-seen law-enforcement officer on The Practice) as the current standard-bearers of this curious cliche. Ask Wright for his take on this questionable TV tradition, and he says, ”My only thought is, Thank God the trend has lasted this long!”

Point taken. In hyper-competitive Hollywood, a role is a role. But why are these particular roles so maddeningly bare-boned? Rather than being fully vested members of their ensembles — with airtime and plot prominence comparable to their (usually white) subordinates — invariably, these BLS-afflicted characters are there merely to bark orders, settle disputes, and take heat from the brass downtown. What’s up with that?

Well, for one thing, the BLS approach allows producers to make an end run around a charge of tokenism. ”Sure, there’s only one black character,” they can say. ”But s(he)’s a really important character.”

They’re ”a writer’s device more than a fleshed-out person,” says J. Fred MacDonald, author of the 1992 survey Blacks and White TV: African Americans in Television Since 1948. ”Only occasionally, maybe once a season, do they do any kind of exploitation of these characters.” But, he adds, the main question ”is why haven’t there been more leading roles or major supporting roles for minorities?”

Tom Fontana, executive producer of Homicide: Life on the Street (which, with its bevy of well-rounded black characters, including Yaphet Kotto’s Lieut. Al Giardello, is the exception to the BLS rule), suggests that this stereotype began as a well-intentioned TV offshoot of affirmative action; it persists, though, thanks to execs who like to think of themselves as socially conscious but who are ultimately way more ratings conscious. ”For the most part, [TV producers] are afraid to make an African American the lead in a series,” he says. ”So the way to have your cake and eat it too is to make the boss a black guy, but still have the white guy go around and get the chicks. It fits perfectly in the politically correct mentality of Hollywood.”

The BLS approach, which gives the appearance of cast diversity, is also reflective, according to MacDonald, of ”the networks’ need to reach a minority audience in an increasingly competitive, narrow-cast world.” The early efforts of UPN and The WB (following the trail blazed by Fox in its salad days) to tailor much of their prime-time lineups to an ”urban” demo have left the Big Four scrambling to attract what’s left of that audience — and doing an inept, often offensive job of it.

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