Anyone interested in examples of ignored black creativity in television need look no further than the almost complete lack of media attention paid to producer Ralph Farquhar, a TV stylist as assured as Steven Bochco or Chris Carter. Farquhar continues to oversee Moesha, starting its fifth-season run. He’s also cocreated the new Moesha spin-off, The Parkers, featuring Moesha‘s wisecracking, booty-shaking best friend, Kim Parker (the pouty, prickly, peerless Countess Vaughn). Kim now attends Santa Monica Junior College — along with her equally gaudy 36-year-old mom, Nikki, played by stand-up comic Mo’Nique.
The running joke is, of course, that mother and daughter are so alike they constantly cramp each other’s flamboyant style. Some of the gags are predictable — the first day of school, both wear the same garish outfit and want to pledge the same sorority. But Farquhar’s series — he was also responsible for the top-notch, short-lived 1994 Fox inner-city comedy-drama South Central — are distinctive for the way they aren’t so much interested in what’s said as in how it’s said and what it means. With Farquhar, tone is everything.
For Moesha, this has meant a sitcom about a strongly bonded family that manages to be funny while depicting middle-class black life in a far more problematic, enlightening way than, say, Bill Cosby has managed. Moesha’s dad, go-getter Frank Mitchell (William Allen Young), owns a Saturn dealership, and we’ve seen him struggle with business downturns and ethical dilemmas. In this season’s premiere, Moesha takes a job as a gofer at the hip-hop magazine Vibe (mucho product placement here) and wants her editor-boss to read an unassigned piece she’s written on producer-performer Timbaland.
The plot turns on a comic misunderstanding — she thinks she’s in for sexual harassment when he asks her out to discuss her work; he just wants to proffer some chaste mentoring — yet the episode manages to squeeze in a lot more insight about racial and sexual politics than most shows even attempt, and all without becoming pious or PC.
Farquhar’s Parkers is meant to be a much more low-down, slapsticky sitcom — both Vaughn and Mo’Nique are graduates of the Jackée Harry school of Sassy Black Women Comedy, in which attitude frequently provides the humor that the script does not. (I invariably laugh, for example, every time Kim does her trademark shtick, which is to give an ordinary word what she thinks is a classy pronunciation: ”parties” becomes ”pour-ties,” for example.) Even when she was a second banana on Moesha, there was something sweetly poignant about Kim’s attempts to transcend her up-from-the-ghetto roots, and the college setting of The Parkers, combined with the comic combustion Kim has with her equally ambitious and argumentative mother, promises good, raucous fun.
UPN and The WB are, for the moment, the primary locations for black comics to display their talent, in sitcoms ranging from the lame (Malcolm & Eddie) to the weird (The Jamie Foxx Show — is there a more peculiar collection of eccentrics, Foxx included, on TV?) to the supple (dumb as the lines on The Steve Harvey Show can be, the star is always razor-sharp). Another new UPN show, Grown Ups, is a vehicle for Jaleel White, a legend in his own time for portraying mega-nerd Steve Urkel on Family Matters for nine seasons. The creators could have called this new show Pumped Up: White displays his physique at every chance; a recurring setting is a neighborhood basketball court, where the short-sleeved White, a well-known hoops devotee, sinks rocks with debonair ease.
Central to the show’s concept is the notion that White’s character, J. Calvin Frazier, should play less B-ball with his pal Gordon (Dave Ruby) and spend more time carving out a career. If we didn’t get the point, J. pauses mid-jump-shot to announce, ”We’re grown-ups.” Oh, then why are you squandering your charm with trite plotlines such as J. and a potential roommate (Punky Brewster‘s Soleil Moon Frye) each thinking the other is gay?
Both Moesha and Grown Ups debuted Aug. 23 to strong ratings. Unlike Farquhar’s show, Grown Ups may feature a black star, but it doesn’t evince any insight into or enjoyment of the black experience — not surprising, given that White’s role was originally conceived for a white actor. That in itself could have proved interesting (most often, producers don’t think of black actors stepping into roles written as ”white”), but all it results in here is a vague blandness: A show and its star in search of a point of view. Moesha: B+ The Parkers: B Grown Ups: C