Crosstalk: Mid-Season Television 2006

Crosstalk: Mid-Season Television 2006

Scott Tobias: Before getting into our discussion of the new spring shows, let me start by saying that I believe we're currently experiencing a golden age for television. (The classic Golden Age Of Television be damned!) Several things have happened to make it all possible: A diverse selection of specialized cable networks have produced such a quantity of original productions that the next great show can come from anywhere: FX, Bravo, SCI FI, Sundance Channel, Game Show Network, BBC-TV, or someplace else on the dial. As a result, the pay networks have had to raise their game in order to lure subscribers, leading to a bounty of riches from HBO (The Sopranos, The Wire, etc.) that's completely unprecedented. Meanwhile, network offshoots like the WB (and to a much lesser extent, UPN) can nurture quirky little shows like Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars for season after season without needing a significant spike in the ratings. And even the major networks are inching away from tried-and-true, three-cameras-and-a-soundstage genres in order to back shows that are more ambitious and cinematic. Add to that the rise of DVRs and TV on DVD, and we're living in a paradise for couch potatoes. Ten years ago, I thought NBC's Homicide: Life On The Streets was as compelling as any TV drama I'd ever seen; now, I can think of at least a dozen series that are every bit as good or better.

All of which is to say that my TiVo is jammed with entertainment every week, so the bar has been raised on what new shows can squeeze their way into the box. Five or six years ago, there's no doubt I would have returned to The Unit (CBS) week after week for a diverting shot of escapist machismo. Now I'm not so sure. Granted, my expectations were unreasonably high: The last time creators David Mamet and Shawn Ryan got together, Mamet directed a memorable episode of Ryan's outstanding series The Shield that introduced a serial rapist who targets elderly women, and ended with the show's mild-mannered Detective Wagonbach strangling a stray cat with his bare hands. (That matter-of-fact medium shot of the cat dropping lifelessly from his hands to the ground is one I won't soon forget.) It would be unreasonable to anticipate such cat-choking antics on a major network like CBS, but it nonetheless feels like Mamet and Ryan have been de-clawed a bit. (Okay, enough with the feline metaphors.)

At this point, any credit or discredit for the show should probably go to Mamet, who wrote episodes one and two (and next week's episode, too), and who has conceived The Unit as a natural extension of his underrated Spartan, a crisp, economical thriller that few people saw. Though its military heroes allowed Mamet to indulge in the themes of masculinity and honor that run through much of his work, Spartan also questioned the motives of the truly powerful. I read the whole abduction plot as an allegory about the Jessica Lynch debacle; the film is about what happens when a rescue mission gets tangled up in the spin machine and turns into a public-relations stunt.

In The Unit, there are no questions asked. The show centers on a group of elite special-ops soldiers who are sent on dangerous worldwide assignments that are kept off the books. They take remarkable risks for their country and they can't take credit for their victories, because officially, these operations never happened. What's more, they're in no position to question the purpose of their missions; they're government servants, and their loyalties are entirely to the job at hand and the men who accompany them. Meanwhile, their desperate housewives are forced to mind their ranch-style homes and 2.5 children while anxiously waiting for their men to return, or for two grim-faced officials to pull up with the horrible news.

The dynamic between the men out risking their necks and the women they leave behind reminds me at times of The Right Stuff, which had a lot of terrific scenes of women who bear all the dangers of their husbands' work without enjoying any of the glory. Regina Taylor is particularly strong as unit chief Dennis Haysbert's rock of a wife: Her overriding sense of duty continues to yield powerful and sometimes touching results. In my favorite (and most Mametian) bit of the series so far, she tells a whiny, fretful new soldier's wife, "Here you are… pretty little girl, a fine daughter, child on the way. A man in combat. You're frightened and you want him home. This is not your own special circumstance. You know what this is? It is the history of the world!"

Great stuff, but too much of The Unit feels like rote militaristic action material, not that out of character from the network that brought you JAG. So far, the gang has stopped a airplane hijacking on the tarmac, retrieved a fallen Chinese satellite (and terrorist) in Africa, rescued American missionaries in the Philippines, offered protection for a Mexican drug minister, and carried out an assassination on Spanish soil. And yet the question in every episode is always how they are going to do it, never why. We're left to admire their craftiness in getting out of tough situations, but have yet to see them faced with the sorts of moral dilemmas that might define them more distinctly as human beings. (And even the craftiness is getting a bit far-fetched: Somehow, in a split second, Scott Foley spots a pretty woman in Spain that he knows to be American, recognizes instantly that she uses drugs, and figures he can seduce her into leading him to her dealer, who can then lead him to another dealer, who will then put him on the boat he needs to get out of the country. Now that's one resourceful motherfucker.) I'm gratified the show is a ratings bonanza, but it's the same way I feel when a favorite actor or director wins an Oscar for the wrong movie. It's more of a lifetime-achievement award.

So how about you, Noel? What are your thoughts on Mamet TV and the other new dramas this season?

Noel Murray: I'll confess that I've only seen the first episode of The Unit, because my Tuesday-night TV schedule is too crowded, even with the TiVo working at top speed. But I liked that first episode, both for the brittle Mamet dialogue—my favorite line was "Fine institution, marriage. I believe it's mentioned in the Bible."—and for the shocker ending, which beautifully undercut the whole "efficient, professional" routine that Mamet was working. I don't know if there'll be enough varied stories to tell to keep this show on the road, but the homefront angle is pretty novel, both for this kind of series and for Mamet.

At the least, The Unit has it all over The Evidence (ABC) and Heist (NBC), two other new dramas that I only watched once—and not because of TiVo conflicts. The Evidence is supposed to be a twist on the police procedural, because each episode begins with a narrator reciting a list of the evidence that will be used to solve the crime. And then we're supposed to… what, exactly? Solve the crime ourselves? It can't be done, because we don't know what "bouquet of blue flowers" and "severed human finger" mean until they pop up in the story, at which point all we can say is, "Hey, there's that severed human finger." Everything else about the show is standard-issue: the bickering black and white partners (played by Orlando Jones and Rob Estes), the freaky-but-brilliant coroner (Martin Landau), the bustling American city (San Francisco), and the character-building backstory (a dead wife for Estes).

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I had slightly higher hopes for the 13-part miniseries Heist, because it was created by Mark and Robb Cullen, who were responsible for the underrated poker sitcom Lucky. But the show is too slick by half, full of the kind of postmodern super-criminals who debate whether Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page was the better Yardbird while they're in the middle of a high-tech stickup. I don't care enough about these "only in L.A." yahoos to stick around and see if gangleader Dougray Scott can pull off his big Oscar-night jewelry score some future week, of if he's going to be tripped up by his crush on dreamy cop Michele Hicks.

It doesn't help Heist that it's debuting right when FX's long-delayed Thief is finally hitting the airwaves. Thief occupies The Shield's recently vacated Tuesday-night timeslot, as well as its place in the "all of our heroes are bastards" movement pioneered by the likes of The Sopranos and Deadwood. I've got to hand it to Thief, though: it's got a new take on the guy-you-hate-to-love. Major credit goes to Andre Braugher, in the lead as a master thief going through the worst stretch of his life. A job goes sour, his team is starting to splinter, and his wife dies in a car accident, leaving him in charge of his pouty teenage stepdaughter. Braugher drops most of the cockiness that he brought to his classic Frank Pemberton character on Homicide, and replaces it with a sense of caution so obsessive that he'd rather kill an erratic colleague than deal with his mistakes. So how's he going to deal with this bratty girl, who now knows more about her stepdad's real job than her mother ever did? And can Braugher get a new job lined up fast enough to satisfy his restless crew and get the Chinese mob off their collective backs?

There's a lot of threads in the early episodes of Thief—including one mother of a dirty cop played by Michael Rooker—but the show doesn't feel cluttered or confusing. It's got a real low-key, character-friendly mood, and even though the robbery stuff still strikes me as a little clichéd at this point, Thief has a dark wit that borders on poignancy whenever Braugher grapples with who he owes.

ST: The Evidence sounds like the concept for some really irritating Peter Greenaway movie, though maybe it's worth salvaging. A better idea would be something like Encyclopedia Brown: Present viewers with the evidence for four-fifths of the hour, then give them the commercial break to figure out the mystery for themselves. ("Wait, there are only 28 days in February! That document is a fraud!")

As for Thief, it's far and away my favorite drama of the new season, and I'm a little surprised the reviews have only been respectful rather than ecstatic. The main complaint seems to be about sluggish pacing, but the show's slow-burning mood is one of its major strengths. It may be a creative accident that the show is the first to deal with New Orleans post-Katrina, but its themes dovetail nicely with evocative cutaways to a city in ruins. Braugher and company are basically professional looters, and in a monologue he delivers under an overpass in the second episode, he seems to forgive himself for exploiting all that devastation and lawlessness: Here's a world that's been raped by corporations, the government, and other powerful forces, so raping is morally permissible.

Since Homicide went off the air, I've been waiting for Braugher to get a role in the movies or on television that's worthy of his immense talent, and now he's finally got one. His "guy-you-hate-to-love" role is similar to Vic Mackey on The Shield (maybe it's the FX house style), and irresistibly compelling: He's capable of horribly cold-blooded things if it means protecting himself and his profession, yet he has a compassionate side, too. When he delivers that funeral speech in episode two, you get the feeling that he means everything he says, and that he might be a better father to his stepdaughter than her deadbeat dad in Hawaii, even though she witnessed him shooting a guy on their back porch. I'm not quite as interested in the Rooker angle yet, and I don't really see why the Chinese mob wants to mow everyone down (they gave the money back—what the hell else do they want?), but I'm definitely hooked for the six-episode run and beyond, should it be renewed for another season. Thief reminds me of something Michael Mann might do, and not just because he also directed a movie of the same title: Mann has always been interested in criminality as a profession, with its own set of rigors and guidelines, and it's been fascinating to watch Braugher try to maintain his sense of professionalism in the face of a deteriorating situation at home and on the job.

Over on HBO, I've still been watching Big Love every week, though if The Sopranos wasn't such a honey of a lead-in, my loyalties might waver a bit. Four episodes into the series, I'm still on the fence, though the three actresses (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin) play off each other so well that I suspect the show will eventually hit its stride. Its premise—about a Salt Lake City entrepreneur (Bill Paxton) who keeps three wives in three adjacent houses—has attracted some controversy as an attack on Mormonism, but it's a little more nuanced than that. For one, it's made clear from the start that polygamy is not common or legal practice among the Mormons of today, and that its oldest practitioner here (an ideally cast Harry Dean Stanton) is a deeply corrupt lecher who enslaves his vast "family" on a dirt-poor compound in the sticks. By comparison, Bill Paxton seems like a far more savory character, though we can see that his new-school version of polygamy is also hopelessly compromised, an indulgence that brings him the pleasures (and headaches) of three lovely, devoted women and a big family, but with the religious component conspicuously missing.

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It doesn't take the Sopranos lead-in to reveal the connection between the two shows, which are both about unconventional and fundamentally corrupt family units that stick together in defiance of the law and its consciences. The problem with Big Love is that it doesn't take itself seriously enough: Too much of the show is devoted to the petty squabbles that are bound to occur between three women with an equal share in one man—a situation that pays off for Paxton in the sack and exacts a toll in most other areas—and the threat that Stanton and the neighbors' meddlings will cause this sweet setup to be exposed and destroyed. While it's superficially compelling enough to keep me watching week after week, I hope the show will really start exploring the moral and spiritual void at the heart of this arrangement, rather than just scoring a few laughs, drumming up a little tension, and supplying more hot Mormon action. I'm cautiously optimistic that the second half of the season will lead it into richer territory, but for now, the jury is out.

To segue ever-so-awkwardly into the world of TV comedy, I watched the first episode of The New Adventures Of Old Christine (CBS) after a wave of approving reviews, but checked out just as quickly. Not to say that the show was dreadful—it's certainly a stronger outing than other post-Seinfeld vehicles, though that's saying less than nothing—but the sitcom format is just dead to me now. With NBC's The Office thriving without the canned laugh-track and standard camera setups, there's no point in retreating to the dull setup/punchline zingers that hit every few beats with grinding regularity. Granted, Seinfeld was a standard sitcom in many ways, too, but its laughs were much less expected and its plots more ingeniously arranged. Though it relies too much on her humiliating herself, Christine seems like a nice vehicle for Julia Louis-Dreyfus' talent, and it's good to have Clark Gregg around as a low-key counterbalance, but television has evolved past this knuckle-dragging format, don't you think?

NM: I have a higher tolerance for sitcom conventions than you do—heck, I watched almost every episode of Joey—so I'm sticking with The New Adventures Of Old Christine for now. I do have two early concerns. First, not to be a prude, but the jokes strike me as way too smutty way too often. Maybe I was soured by watching the reality series Situation: Comedy last summer, but every time the kid playing Louis-Dreyfus' son makes a crack about his mom's sex life (or, in one episode, her period), I can hear a roomful of paid-by-the-day gag men robotically spitballing jokes. I'm also a little bothered by Louis-Dreyfus herself—she's trying so hard not to be her Seinfeld character that she's making her lovelorn divorcée too much of a frazzled klutz. It's hard to root for someone so hapless. Luckily, she's calmed down some in recent episodes—now that she has a romantic interest—and the writers have come up with some non-generic jokes that better fit these characters who are, truly, not that generic.

Now if you really want generic, dial up Teachers, the NBC sitcom that acts like it's still 1995, and there's still a slot between Friends and Seinfeld that the network needs to fill. Gather up a bunch of young actors with some minimal comic skill, give them a reason to hang out together—why not a high-school teaching gig?—and let the sexual innuendo flap in the breeze. Teachers has the veteran hand of director James Burrows making nothing seem like something, and it's exactly the sort of wispy series that could prove hard to shake, like Wings. (USA Network should probably go ahead and secure the syndication rights, just in case.) But beneath the polish, Teachers is most like Fox's two new slacker-coms, Free Ride and The Loop, in that they're all about post-collegiate boys who have a hard time dealing with the grown-up working world. They're like half-hour-long beer commercials.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I haven't actually seen Free Ride or The Loop. Nor have I seen more than 15 minutes of Sons & Daughters (ABC), the other big new sitcom of the midseason. Sons & Daughters got a lot of strong early reviews, but I couldn't make sense of the half-episode I checked out. From the thicket of quirky characters—all with kinky sexual problems, it seemed—to the not-as-smart-as-it-wants-to-be improvised dialogue, I found the show really excruciating. I don't need sitcoms that try to look like reality TV. I have reality TV for that.

ST: Ah, reality. Now we're finally to the meat of the sandwich. Some would say the shit sandwich, but I know we're both appreciators of the genre on the rare occasions when it works. And this season has brought us a great one in Bravo's Top Chef, the latest from the producers of Project Runway and Project Greenlight—not coincidentally, two of my favorite reality shows. What these shows have in common is that they're competitions among talented people making their starts in a creative field. It's not about sticking a bunch of freaks in a house (or on an island) and watching the sparks fly, or staging a competition in which "playing the game" involves dishonorable forms of sabotage. There's plenty of drama here, but like Project Runway, it's essentially a meritocracy: If you don't put a good product on the plate, it's time to pack up your knives and go.

After the first two seasons of Project Runway brought us Jay McCarroll (still my favorite reality-show contestant ever—so lovable and witty, even if too many of his barbs are aimed at himself, poor bastard) and Santino Rice (last season's love-to-hate-him lightning rod, though again, capable of devastating wit), I was initially worried that Top Chef wouldn't deliver in the personality department. The show could probably use a galvanizing figure like Hell's Kitchen's Gordon Ramsey at its center, if only to give me another insulting catchphrase ("This looks like a dog's dinner!") to use at the dining-room table. Still, as the weeks pass, the personalities and visions of these contestants are starting to come into focus, and their artistry in the kitchen impresses my useless water-boiling self at every occasion. Only a creative field like cooking could attract someone like Stephen, Top Chef's answer to Santino, who is every bit the "tool" and "douchebag" that one contestant labeled him, and yet like Santino, his arrogance is an answer to the banality of others, which he no doubt considers a bigger crime. Plus, there's something kind of touching about a guy who claims himself to be in the "top three percentile" of everything he does; he's like the Phil Hellmuth of the culinary world, so clueless in his extreme self-regard that you can't help liking him—or at least wanting him around for teasing purposes.

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So who do you like to win this thing? There's still plenty of dead weight left, especially Andrea, who seems to care more about how food leaves the body than what it's like going down. (As a junk-food connoisseur from the Midwest, I find this an alien concept.) Based on her incredibly delicious-looking lasagna cooked inside a small, hollowed-out pumpkin, I put my early money on Tiffani, and there it remains, despite her own cartoonishly arrogant attack on the inferior palettes of 10-year-old kids. Outside of her, the only real contenders for the prize are Stephen (who will probably fancy himself right out of the competition eventually) and consistent winners like Lee Anne and Harold, who seem steady enough to make it through the various challenges unscathed. Whatever happens, I like the camaraderie that's developed between them, in spite of the fact that they're all competing for $100,000. I'm reminded of Wendy Pepper, the villain in Season One of Project Runway, who treated the contest like she was on Survivor and was shunned by her castmates as a result. Behaving like an underhanded jerk won't help you win a show like Top Chef, so why not shake hands and let the best man or woman win?

Needless to say, such well-wishes are not forthcoming in Fox's loathsome reality hit Unan1mous, which throws a collection of head-butting jackasses in an underground bunker and forces them to agree on who gets to walk out with $1.5 million. Two episodes of this one were enough for me. Since the show can't last only one episode, these clowns aren't going to come to an agreement right away, which leaves them to bicker about their torturous conditions and other matters, like whether God hates homosexuals (crazy minister says "yes," homosexual says "no"; neither will ever vote for the other). The only scrap of entertainment I got out of the whole thing was from a dude who tries to gain sympathy by pretending he has testicular cancer. How does he sell 'em on it? By affecting a limp like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein.

So what's new on the reality front for you, Noel? Probably not much in the way of reality, I'm guessing.

NM: Well first let me jump back to Top Chef, which has become a kind of obsession of mine. There's two levels to the game here. One you've identified: Can these culinary stars of the future come up with something that dazzles the eye, the palette, and the imagination? The other is this: Can they keep their egos in check long enough to do what the judges ask them to do? Even when they're told to cook for 10-year-olds or people on the street, a lot of these contestants still think their ultimate judge is some prissy, nonexistent big-city food critic. (My favorite judge comment came in response to the overly fancied-up open-face burrito that two contestants served in the street-vendor challenge: "It's a fuckin' burrito! You put your shit in it and you wrap it up!") There's one major flaw in the game, in that there's too much weight put on each episode's final challenge, which puts the real "top chefs" in jeopardy too often. But you're right that the show brings out the personalities of its contestants in the right way, by letting them show off their actual talents, not their delusions about themselves.

I can't believe you're not watching American Inventor (ABC), which rivals Top Chef for I.W.P. (that's "immediate watching priority") in our house. The first four weeks have been the equivalent of American Idol's "audition rounds," but unlike the monotony of the original A.I.'s parade of bad singers, this A.I. offers up a fresh horror with each new bad invention idea. The judges are more entertaining too. The standard-issue priggish British guy (Peter Jones) and the standard-issue street-smart New York guy (Ed Evangelista) are both pretty useless, since the former almost always says no and the latter almost always says yes—both without much comment. But contestants need three nods to get to the development round, and the swing voters are wildly unpredictable. The ever-weepy Mary Lou Quinlan is easily swayed by contestant sob stories and by any invention that she feels will "improve the lives of women everywhere," while ruthless know-it-all Doug Hall could look right into the eyes of a man with two mortgages and one failing kidney and tell him straight-up that his idea won't work. It'll be interesting to see what happens to all these American dreamers now that they're in the second round and have to re-pitch, and it'll be even more interesting to see what the Top 12 will do with their development money. But I have to admit that I'll miss the first round, when on any given night a toothless old man could walk into the room with a smoke-gun and a bag of chips and ask the judges, "Does it taste like hickory?"

Another surprisingly good reality show you're not watching is Cheerleader Nation, on Lifetime. It's more a documentary series really, following a defending champion Kentucky cheerleading squad as they move through tryouts to football season to state competition. The focus is pretty diffuse, catching these girls' typically tangled teenage love lives—including a lot of sullen boyfriends whose idea of public affection is to punch their girl on the arm—and their parents' anxiety over whether the kids are really happy or just very, very busy. There's not a lot of amped-up drama here, or an excess of ego-stroking first-person confessionals. It's just kids trying to be kids, in between doing handsprings on command.

ST: The toxic reviews kept me away from American Inventor and Cheerleader Nation, but I suspect that so far as reality shows are concerned, many critics are inclined to toss the baby with the bathwater. Sounds like I might be a little too late to catch up with them now, but in general, I think reality shows work best when they aren't attempting to deal with reality in any way. It usually winds up looking too phony. Case in point: Bonds On Bonds (ESPN), an hourlong weekly documentary/spin-job series that follows Barry Bonds as he enters this turbulent and almost certainly historic season. Much like many fans with Barry himself, I'm sure there are plenty of people at ESPN that would like this series to retire soon; given the ongoing investigation in steroids abuse by Bonds and other major-league stars, the network has tied itself in knots trying to draw the line between its news division and the entertainment division that's responsible for the project.

I'll admit right up front: I'm a Bonds hater. I'm also a McGwire, Sosa, and Sheffield hater. And it's not just the 'roids, either—something about this generation of sluggers (or maybe the surly arrogance of sluggers throughout history) has always left me cold, even in the halcyon days of the McGwire/Sosa home-run race. Without stopping for breath, I ravenously tore through Game Of Shadows, the devastating new book that set off an official investigation into performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Though Bonds deserves a fair amount of abuse for continuing to lie about his well-documented juicing, I think most of the blame should fall to Bud Selig, Donald Fehr, and the other baseball officials who were late to devise a steroids policy of any kind, and then came up with an ineffectual policy once they finally got around to it. What Bonds can be blamed for, in my view, is being an abusive, self-pitying black hole that's currently consuming the greatest of pastimes.

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Bonds On Bonds isn't a reality show in any traditional sense: There's no goal or prize at the end of the line, save maybe for a home-run milestone, and thus nothing to give it any semblance of structure. Though the first episode has been arranged in a vague chronology, following Bonds from a robust Spring Training in Scottsdale, Arizona through the boo-birds that greeted him in San Diego on Opening Day, much of the interview footage could be switched around randomly without anyone being the wiser. And most of that footage consists of Bonds playing the victim, insisting that the allegations and media pressure don't get to him, and then collapsing into childish belligerence and tears. As a piece of counter-spin, I think it will largely backfire, both because people recognize it as self-serving damage control, and because Bonds is about as sympathetic a hero as the star of Steven Spielbergo's A Burns For All Seasons. Though I'm curious about where the series could possibly go from here—or where ESPN will even allow it to go—life is most definitely too short.

NM: Yeah, I'm done with Bonds On Bonds after one viewing. Leaving aside the ethical implications of an "ESPN Original" entertainment show that's not allowed to feed scoops to the ESPN news division—I actually watched a Sportscenter segment on Bonds that was reduced to quoting Variety about something the slugger said on his show—Bonds On Bonds just isn't very good television. When the show delves into Bonds' history, and gets his first-person memories of his Dad's death and his own playoff failures, I can almost see how a reasonably good biographical documentary could be cobbled together from this footage. But as you point out, the chronology is jumbled and the point unclear. Bonds On Bonds teases us with the possibility that Bonds is going to confront his legacy head-on, and get to the bottom of whether he really cares what people think of him. Instead, he waves his hate mail, breaks down crying, and does everything but demand that people feel sorry for his lying, cheating, stuck-up ass.

Almost as egregious is Lil' Kim: Countdown To Lockdown (BET), which follows the hip-hop diva as she tries to get some business done before heading off to jail to serve a perjury sentence. The first episode was kind of interesting, since it dealt with the reasons for Lil' Kim's conviction, which has to do with the "no snitching" code of the streets. But the rest of the episodes have been pretty standard "day in the life of a celebrity" reality fare, with a lot of indistinguishable hangers-on buzzing around the star while she throws hissy fits—later justified at great length in the first-person confessionals—because she doesn't like her new video, her clothes, her dinner, etc. The show is actually pretty hard to follow, since it mostly consists of people yelling at each other about how they can't stand "drama," even though that's pretty much all they produce, all day long.

Also kind of lame: Face The Family (Lifetime), a reality dating show in which couples on the verge of getting serious spend a week alone with each other's respective parents. It's not especially revealing, because this situation is artificial—in real life, parents aren't asked to reassess their kids' prospective mates after every single encounter—and because the show's casting department tends to lean on unusual types, like a middle-aged stand-up comedian, and Matthew Perry's sister. Still, there's a modicum of entertainment value in watching some of these folks blow it, like when the comedian walks into his Asian girlfriend's parents' house and says, "I love what you've done with the place. It's like Enter The Dragon."

Is it possible for a reality show to be appalling and enlightening at the same time? I give you Black. White. (FX), which proves the case hour by excruciating hour. The premise is simultaneously brave and ghastly: a white family and a black family put on makeup and try to pass as each other's race in a series of staged situations, in order to better understand the persistence of racism in a supposedly enlightened society. But there's a couple of problems with the show, right from the top. For starters, the white family is headed up by a couple of A-1 doofuses. The father, Bruno, is a well-meaning, intractable snob who's convinced that blacks go looking for racism where it doesn't exist, and that if anyone ever called him a "nigger," he'd just laugh it off. Meanwhile, his wife Carmen is a touchy-feely type who doesn't understand why it might be offensive to call someone "a beautiful black creature." Their opposite numbers seem a lot cooler, though the black mother, Renee, does tend to prove Bruno's main point by overreacting to Carmen's social klutziness, which she presumes to be mean-spirited when it's really just clueless.

The other major problem with Black. White. is sort of endemic to the genre. Blame Heisenberg. The presence of cameras in any situation is bound to change the situation, and a lot of times when the subjects on the show think that people are treating them differently because of the color of their skin, the real reason might be the TV crew surrounding them, not to mention that their makeup looks kind of weird. The show also misses some opportunities to confront some of the stickier issues. In one episode, Renee gets mad at a white guy who complains that blacks don't value a good education, but it takes until the next episode for her to mention that her own son has been kicked out of school, and that he doesn't much care about going back.

At the same time, Black. White. really gets at some of the enduring problems between the races in America, and at least two or three times an episode, it pushes so hard that it gets uncomfortable. Whenever the families start arguing with each other, and the black family falls back on "You guys can never understand what we've been through," and the white family falls back on condescension, it reveals a cultural divide that may never be bridged. The only real hope is the children, white Rose and black Nick, who are growing up in a culture where blacks no longer feel the need to "act white," since so many whites are acting black. Nick doesn't really want to hear what his parents have to say about institutional racism, while Rose is so heartbroken that she can't be as close to her black friends as she is to her white friends—or as the black friends are to each other—that she ends almost every episode in tears. Black. White. may be too silly to do any real healing, but it deserves some kudos for probing the fullness of the wound.

That's what TV is for, right? To educate, entertain, and make you cringe.

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