In Living Color

Some of television's most animated conversations on race and culture are taking place among cartoon characters

There's something very sour at Dilbert's heart, or maybe Scott Adams's. You can't help noticing that the women and people of color who do enter Adams's Caucasian Zone are the same characters who present the farcical plans that oppress Dilbert each week. Bitter and self-satisfied by turns, this show hints that Adams idolized Michael Douglas's defense of white-male resentment in Falling Down but didn't have the guts to center a show on him. Instead, we get Dice Clay in the workplace--spoken from a head that looks like a bleached carnival peanut.

Set in capitalism's wasting wake, The PJs, produced and voiced by Eddie Murphy, jabs more sharply at what the new economy has left behind. From the P-Funk roll of its opener to its array of old-time character types to the bathroom humor it can't resist (one early episode prominently features the unclogging of a toilet), this show pines for '70s black family fare like The Jeffersons and Good Times. Sweetly nostalgic and devoid of white characters, it's also the kind of program that gives well-meaning white liberals fits. Call it the In Living Color line: Where does knowing parody shade into self-denigration for white viewers' amusement? Naming the main character "Thurgood" and making him the building superintendent is supposed to be satirical, but of what exactly? And the much-touted "foamation" visual style lends itself all too well to what some might call racist caricature.

To my eyes, though, The PJs pokes at enough black-culture institutions to win itself a reprieve--my favorite being an audio book called Cooking with Maya Angelou that wrings a full 15 seconds out of her sonorous delivery of the first instruction. In a similar manner, the program alludes to everything from Langston Hughes's poetry to '70s funk. (About damn time: Given that it powers pretty much every area of mass culture today, older black pop deserves far more than loving theft by latter-day R&B practitioners and the occasional name-check in a Tarantino film.)

Good times: The "foamation" figures of Eddie Murphy's The PJs  recall black family fare of the 1970s
Good times: The "foamation" figures of Eddie Murphy's The PJs recall black family fare of the 1970s

At the same time, the show's humor conceals a good deal of anger: It bites into a welfare bureaucracy that cowers invisibly behind thick bulletproof glass. Embedded in such details lurks a matter-of-fact despair at the precarious condition of a once-thriving black lower-middle class. On a recent episode, Thurgood spearheads the revival of a beloved neighborhood theater, only to discover that it makes a mint playing porn (however implausible that scenario is in our age of easily accessible video copulation). After Thurgood accidentally-on-purpose burns it down, the episode concludes with the neighborhood crackhead roasting his pigeon dinner in the wreckage, crooning Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." How anyone could miss the sneaky mordancy at this show's core is beyond me.

In the end, the Fox network's racial dialogue keeps its actors in separate worlds. And perhaps it's unfair to expect more hard-hitting social analysis than these cartoons have already mustered. Still, there's something heartening in each show's willingness to put both the stupidities and the values of their respective worlds on display--a welcome hint that critical consideration of race hasn't vanished from the small screen just yet.

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