Drama Queens

Like a good piece of sweet-potato pie, "Soul Food" has finally found the right seasoning. "Soul Food" is the first African-American TV drama to make it to its third season, and its very survival provides a lesson in the ways of television. When "Soul Food" debuted, it was a solid if conventional family drama with so-so ratings--just the kind of program the networks would have canceled. But "Soul Food" appears on Showtime, and cable programmers are notably more willing to nurture a show until it finds itself--and the audience finds it. What's more, Showtime has built its schedule on programming that caters to niche groups: "Queer As Folk" is its No. 1 show, and the Latino-oriented "Resurrection Blvd." is also a strong performer. "Soul Food" serves an audience that's been notoriously ignored by the networks but is central to Showtime's mission. "We respect that we have so many different cultures tuning in to our networks, and we have to cater to them," says Jerry Offsay, president of programming for Showtime. "We thought the show was a solid, family experience and we decided that our support would be there because we knew it would find its way."

It has. During its second season, the female audience jumped by more than 60 percent and white viewers increased an additional 20 percent. What makes "Soul Food" so different is that it focuses on traditional family issues without sanding down the details of regular black life. The producers cast African-Americans of all hues and then dig deep into a family full of love, disagreements and its fair amount of drama. The oldest sister, Teri (Nicole Ari Parker), is a successful lawyer overwhelmed by her own success. The middle sister, Maxine (Vanessa Williams), is a stay-at-home mom aching for more. The youngest sister, Bird (Malinda Williams), is a hairdresser married to an ex-con who can't get away from his past. All in all, a fairly typical American family. "Our point was to make a show anyone could relate to because we all have similar issues," said creator and executive producer Felicia D. Henderson. "But also to draw out some of the minority figures you see every night. That 'black thug' in handcuffs on the news has a story, a family, a life that you might understand."

"Soul Food" also does a wonderful job of mining the most ordinary stories for their nuanced drama. In last week's season opener, the newly promoted Teri finds herself in a dilemma when an African-American lawyer in her firm assumes she'll make partner just because the new boss is black. But the show does not shy away from tackling some of the harsher situations that black--and white--families face. In one episode last season, after Lim (Darren Henson) is arrested for something he didn't do, the family struggles with whether to let the children visit him in jail. A painful decision is made not to, leaving one half of the family feeling guilty while the other half feels deserted. It's raw drama, spiced up by strong acting, pretty faces and creative writing. The show's Al Green theme song says it best: it isn't just soul food, it's food for the soul.

Soul Food
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