It’s hard to remember now, but there was a brief moment, at the start of her career, when Whoopi Goldberg did something besides play Whoopi Goldberg. She created varied characters — impersonating a little girl, a ”surfer chick,” and others — and she shaped a one-woman performance that caught the eye of director Mike Nichols, who showcased Goldberg’s talent in a 1984 Broadway production that made her a star. She’s never looked back — and in her case, that’s been her crucial creative flaw. Once Goldberg became a star, and she saw that people laughed hard at her own natural ‘aren’t I a saucy gal attitude,’ she seemed to figure, why mess with what the masses like? It was easier just to be herself — or an image of herself, tough-talking, cold-staring, slow-burning, lapsing into the black slang of her generation (she’s 47) — to get quick, thin laughs. She’s brought a lot of people a lot of pleasure in dodgy film vehicles (my kids used to watch ”Sister Act” and ”Corrina, Corrina” over and over again on tape), but no one would accuse her of living up to her potential.
Which brings us to her new sitcom, Whoopi. In it, her character, Mavis Rae, is a one-R&B-hit wonder who now runs a frowsy Manhattan hotel. But as the title suggests, she’s really just Whoopi makin’ Whoopi. She sets the tone of the series immediately in the pilot when, puffing on a cigarette behind the check-in desk, she’s upbraided by a guest. ”You know, secondhand smoke kills,” he says. Whoopi snaps back, ”So do I, baby — walk on!” Soon we meet the hotel handyman, Nasim (Omid Djalili), an Iran-bred Persian whose shtick includes comments that play on recent foreign events (”I was trained by the Iranian militia to build a missile system” — pause — ”which we do not have!”) and apoplectic rage at being mistaken for an Arab. Other characters include Mavis’ brother, Courtney (Wren T. Brown), a meticulously well-spoken black man dating a younger white woman, Rita (Elizabeth Regen), whose salient trait is that she talks with an exaggeratedly ”street” tone in hip-hop slang (”Woman,” she says to Whoopi, ”you do represent!”).
Goldberg told reporters this summer that she wants the show to be ”kind of like Archie Bunker 2003,” by which I don’t think she meant she wants be perceived as a complacent bigot. Rather, I assume she intends to tell it like it is, honey. ”People [in America] don’t know the difference between Persians and Arabs,” she tells Nasim in the second episode, ”and frankly, they don’t care.” And Mavis has contempt for Rita’s use of ”axe” when she means ”ask,” and acts suitably repulsed when Rita asks Mavis if she thinks that Courtney ”love me hard.”
Terrorism, racism, smoking in enclosed spaces — wouldn’t it be interesting if a television show sidled up to these subjects and offered critiques of them that would also be funny? Sorry, you’re going to have to watch ABC’s Homeland Security drama, ”Threat Matrix,” for that — and there, the critiques are knee-jerk gung ho and the laughs are unintentional. The best that can be said about Goldberg-as-social-observer is that she’s slightly funnier than Bill Maher: She manages to avoid his soapbox smugness only because her commentary comes packaged with costars who do their best to give thuddingly blunt lines some sharp comic timing.
”Whoopi” was created by ”That ’70s Show” executive producers Bonnie and Terry Turner. They and Goldberg think that educated black people using slang incorrectly is a stitch (lawyer Courtney threatens a tough black kid by saying that he’ll ”burst a cap up in here”), and they exploit the sad fact, to judge from the popularity of recent movies like ”Bringing Down the House,” that audiences love the spectacle of white people trying too hard to ”be black.” Goldberg positions her own character as a middle-aged fuddy-duddy — Mavis refers to ”that hippety-hoppity music” — and her show comes off both jaded and dated. About the only promising note is that the Turners and Goldberg recently recruited Larry Wilmore, the immensely talented producer behind both ”The Bernie Mac Show” and ”The PJs”; maybe he can bring some more nuance and timely relevance to the subjects Whoopi wants to muck around in. As it is, Goldberg has settled for what she has for far too long: posing as an obstreperous rebel when she’s really just a Hollywood square.