In Living Color

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

Every December some New York Times critic discovers, to his or her horror, that planet TV becomes more and more segregated with each passing year. Prestige dramas (i.e., hourlong cop and lawyer shows) toss the multicultural salad, but sitcoms are still the cultural children of Plessy v. Ferguson. The lily-white universe of big-ticket mainstream productions like Friends and Frasier barely rates a glance from most African Americans; conversely, white folks almost never take time out to visit underfunded UPN/WB fare like Between Brothers or The Steve Harvey Show, the top programs with black viewers. This virtual apartheid may not be the result of open racism on the part of stars or network execs (apart from Seinfeld, whose nonwhite New Yorkers typically served as chum for the regular cast's predation), but it's certainly a good approximation of same. Why integrate pop culture if in the end we're just going to bring back the equivalent of separate drinking fountains?

It would be refreshing to see this subject debated anywhere outside of PBS, but the Sunday-pundit wrestling matches are so white and male you'd think we were marooned in 1956. So where--other than the strange racial utopia of contemporary advertising--can you glimpse something different? The answer is no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention: Head for the cartoons. I wouldn't nominate South Park's Chef for any NAACP Image Awards, but some of the most human and accurate families on TV right now exist only on cels. Brit import Stressed Eric was mercifully canceled after three episodes, and you've probably heard about this new program called The Simpsons. Yet Comedy Central's Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Fox's promising Family Guy, awful Dilbert, and especially King of the Hill have, almost without being noticed, established their own interesting little discussion on the subject of race. Each Tuesday night, when The PJs and King of the Hill go back-to-back (from 7 to 8 p.m., Channel 29), you even get an implicit dialogue on whiteness and blackness. (Perhaps not since Ice-T's early-'90s claim that rap is the country and western music of black America have the races been juxtaposed to such intriguing ends.)

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

Of the two on Tuesday, King is by far the better show. (The pet project of Beavis & Butt-head auteur Mike Judge, it suggests that there's hope yet that Matt Stone and Trey Parker will reach adulthood.) Over its year-and-a-half run, the show's clan of suburban Texans has managed to nurture a fragile dignity through even the most embarrassing predicaments. Who can forget the episode devoted entirely to main man Hank Hill's constipation? Hank, his beer belly ballooning over his belt, his heart swelled with craftsman's pride in the propane and propane accessories he peddles, could easily be the kind of yahoo who people from the coasts dismiss as a strange species of the fly-over states. But even though Hank and his buddies--conspiracy freak Dale, pudgy, divorced loser Bill, and the incomprehensible Boomhauer--can't conceive of anything finer than standing on the lawn pounding brews, their eminently laughable camaraderie is treated gently, its ridiculousness recognized but never condescended to.

Instead, Hank has grown into a fascinating, three-dimensional example of the white male ego adrift in a world where patriarchy has lost its ballast. Hank calls the United States "the greatest country in the history of the world," and can't quite stop himself from smothering his wife's desires for autonomy. But he has also learned to cope with his high-strung, irascible Laotian neighbor (who in turn calls him "redneck" and "cracker") and the Native American healer who has cuckolded Dale for more than a decade. Hank's wife Peggy substitute-teaches Spanish, a language she barely understands. But the show never makes a fetish of the racial and sexual complexities of their world, nor does it treat any of the other players as anything less than equal: This is just the way things are, and white people can only make their peace with it.

On one of the best episodes, Chris Rock voices Buddah Sack, a comedy traffic-school instructor, who inspires Hank's son Bobby (to my mind, the gentlest and most charming adolescent boy on TV today) to become a comic. Instructed by Buddha to "find his roots" after his imitation-homeboy skits fall flat, Bobby hits the Internet and happens upon a White Identity page, then proceeds to drum up some Anglo-Saxon power at the next open mic. This being a comedy, all is resolved in the end, but we never forget Buddah Sack's anger and his suspicion of putatively well-meaning white guys like Hank. A surprisingly gutsy episode (and a topic other sitcoms would never think to touch), the show dared to dredge up fundamental identity-politics questions about who can say what in our culture and why.

 

Where King of the Hill parades its regional identity on a lawn tractor, UPN's animated series Dilbert (7 p.m., Channel 9) isolates its scope to the fluorescent sphere of the modern office. Despite Scott Adams's fortunes, this Dilbert feels as low-rent as it is low-imagination. Perhaps doubting that the high jinks of a software engineer can float 22 minutes of TV action, the show's creators attempt to induce hysteria in all sorts of unproductive ways: gore, explosions, hyperbole. Even funny notions, like a cult-leading techie whose robotic followers do her bidding on useless projects, are scuttled for more wacky antics. (Eventually, she's beheaded.)

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.)

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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