When we think of black themed television networks, our minds usually drift toward Black Entertainment Television–BET and it conjures a myriad of mixed sentiments. A generation divided by Robert Johnson years and the post-Robert Johnson years remember BET fondly and others that regard it as the sugary snacks of hip hop culture; that which our youth consume at unhealthy rates begging for a type-2 diabetes type of warped cultural worldview to take hold of their minds. There are still members of my close circle that reminisce about the days when AJ and Free hosted 106 & Park and not someone named Rocsi and Terrence J.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for others, we have other options. With my new treasure trove of right-below-premium-cable-package I discovered that there are other options than just BET. The next most familiar is TVOne, but I discovered this other channel called Centric as well. So now you don’t have to catch your “227” reruns on just one station, but you have a few other choices. But that’s just the problem with these black culturally themed networks: you seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. As it stands for me, black culturally centered networks are the dumping ground for black syndicated television shows and sit-coms.
Now on the surface that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but honestly, between reruns of “Good Times” and “Martin” and the obligatory Tyler Perry movie or “The Color Purple” I realised that the black entertainment industry had offered us a pitiably small amount of culture on the silver and small screen. When I’m flipping channels, whatever is on either of these channels at a given day is either a) something I’ve seen before or b) something I can find on the other 300 channels I have.
One of the problems with BET programming is that it follows everyone else. BET, naturally, is the leader of the black television entertaniment world if for no other reason that it beat everyone else out the gate by considerable years. However, BET wasn’t revolutionary in much of it’s original programming even in years past. Jacque Reid doing the nightly news was simply an answer to every other news program at 11/10pm central in America and Tavis Smiley’s program at 11:30/10:30pm central was an answer to Nightline and an attempt to compete with the Tonight Show and David Letterman.
Not the end of the world, but then the comparisons became odious.
As if not to be outdone, BET launched 106 & Park which was a top ten countdown of music videos with a live studio audience that was the black version of Total Request Live (TRL) from MTV. Well that was fine I suppose. No one was really complaining about seeing a constant stream of lack entertainers and the obligatory white ones with street cred (shoutouts to Eminem and Paul Wall), but anyone with a critical eye could see what was being done. As if that wasn’t enough, though, BET introduced “College Hill” which everyone identified as a rip off of MTV’s “Real World.” Again, while it was nice to see HBCUs highlighted, it caused so much strife in black communities across the country that it is still being discussed till this day. Then we got the string of “Baldwin Hills” and “Harlem Heights” that attempted to highlight the black middle class through the distorted lens that is reality television. Yet again, anyone with a critical eye could see the aping of MTV with just black faces.
Perhaps I’m being overly critical because all of the aforementioned shows I had watched before and yes, I will flip on and watch an episode of “Amen” or “227” if I see it on the TV guide grid, but most of us are stuck living in liminality when it comes to how we, blacks, are presented to a larger audience even if it is on “our” network. Is this an ingrained idea of “don’t go out showing your color” adages that our grandmothers and aunts instilled in us as young children or is it an overcompensation of trying to abolish stereotypes with archetypal images of what it means to be black in America.
One of the conversations surrounding “College Hill” was centered in what image did it portray HBCUs that would allow this type of behavior from their students and to be displayed for national dissection. It led to black college students at other HBCUs to say that their school would never allow cameras on campus to display their students as such. I’ll never forget the young girl at Southern University from that first season known as “No Drawz” who was rumored to be the daughter of one of the upper-level administrative heads at the school or Dru-Ski’s famous “Booty Talk” freestyle. To which me and my friends sneered and said how could she go on camera and do that. The irony behind it all was that much of what was going on at those campuses was just about the same at all the other ones–we just didn’t have cameras to capture it.
So you have all of this discussion about how to reframe the image of black Americans in a positive light, or should I say a positive enough light. The problem with “The Cosby Show” was that you had two different factions of which one was finally relieved to see a television show that mirrored their life of an upper middle class black family and another that said the Huxtables were not real life. Perhaps this is where my inner uppity Negro rears its ugly head. I would rather see the images of the Huxtables portrayed than the cooning of “Martin” and certainly the abominable “The PJs.”
Enter “Reed Between the Lines.”
BET’s latest foray into original programming has obviously tried to hearken back to what we all consider the pinnacle of black television: “The Cosby Show.” They went so far as to even cast Malcolm-Jamal Warner as the patriarch of the family. The beautiful Tracy Ellis-Ross is his wife and they together form a blended family. It’s the rather typical sit-com style of family problems with marriage and kids from school, to work and then back home all succinctly solved in 22 to 24 minutes of script time. Frankly, there’s nothing all that unique about the show.
Being branded as milquetoast and in the words of a Facebook status I noticed during a two hour series premier block (yes, two hours of the exact same show that just premiered) that “Reed” was the black equivalent of “Green Acres” birthed out of a television era that had produced “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” After watching a couple of episodes of “Reed” it was obvious it wasn’t “The Cosby Show,” but then I thought, why should it be? I think part of the challenge that people always have, particularly in the black communities across this country, is that we too often and too easily look at history through the lens of the present. Anyone who studies history or anthropology of the past understands that gravity to which one must look at the then-current conditions of the situation to understand the matrix out of which an event or a person was birthed.
The only reason “The Cosby Show” worked was because it was a novel idea. They were dangerously close to letting Cliff Huxtable’s character be a truck driver. While there’s nothing wrong with Cliff as a truck driver for a show, it would have been following in the tradition of most other sitcoms where some of the basic worries about existence played a central part. Not to mentioning the burgeoning black middle class in the 1908s certainly made “The Cosby Show” somewhat of a reality show. Nearly 30 years later, the Reed family brings nothing new to the table than a blended family and a young black kid with a mohawk.
While there may be nothing new about the image that the Reed family is portraying, I think we ought to read between the lines and give the show a chance. I consider myself a harsh critic of sitcoms having been raised in the era of “live studio audiences” where actors had to really deliver a line and the writers had to give them a good script to elicit a laugh, and actually there have been a line or two where I literally laughed out loud. In the face of black sitcoms such as “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns” neither of which have acted as entertainment for me beyond moving artwork in the background, I think “Reed” offers a departure from the current norm.
The viewer is also asked to read between the lines because the sitcom as we once knew it has been dead since the year 2000 in my opinion. Especially the black sitcom. Even though we have the modern classics of “The Bernie Mac Show” and “Everybody Hates Chris” they are certainly the departure from the three camera model and no laugh track. I’m not offering up support for “Reed Between the Lines” just to quell the comedic critique of the show nor to say that other image criticisms aren’t valid, but I think the show indeed does offer us a chance to dig a bit deeper. Who we are and how we align ourselves in the crooked room that is this country at times, say a lot about where we plan on going in the days ahead.
And at all costs, I think we owe it to ourselves to simply read between the lines.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL