Black Entertainment Television’s controversial new show "We Got To Do Better" (formerly "Hot Ghetto Mess") attracted over 800,000 viewers when it debuted on Wednesday night, a healthier-than-expected audience presumably made up of car-crash gawkers who tuned in to see if the show was the racist, classist sideshow its critics have portrayed it as. The contretemps surrounding the show stemmed from a grass-roots Internet campaign concerned that a television show based on the "Hot Ghetto Mess" Web site, a collection of tawdry photos of blacks with gaudy hairstyles and outfits, would perpetuate negative stereotypes of blacks. The show is indeed a spectacle, but not quite in the way anyone was expecting. It wasn’t very controversial, funny or interesting.
The show begins with its host, Charlie Murphy, welcoming viewers to "Hot Ghetto Mess." (BET apparently thought enough of the media blowback to officially change the name of the show, but not enough to reshoot Murphy’s prerecorded segments. They did change the logo from a crossed-out "Sambo" caricature to a crossed-out gun.) Murphy then introduces several themed segments of video clips of real people displaying questionable social behavior. There’s a collection of low-budget video clips and bad singing, a man putting a condom over his head and inflating it with his nostrils until it explodes, a spate of shoddy local TV commercials.
Interspersed with these are "Street Walkin'" segments, much like the "Jay Walking" segments on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," where a roving personality accosts random people with the type of basic questions that people are supposed to know. On "WGTDB," participants are asked such questions as "What’s the unemployment rate for African-Americans?" All the while, Murphy pops up throughout wagging his finger at the behavior and saying, "We got to do better." But it’s not clear what we have to do better. Singing? Properly using prophylactics? Memorizing random indicators of economic health? It’s entirely unclear exactly what type of "social change" the show is attempting to enact.
Those who worried that the show would be a literal translation of the "Hot Ghetto Mess" Web site had their fears at least partially allayed. The show is relatively harmless compared to its source material, playing like an updated "America’s Funniest Home Videos" assembled from YouTube clips that aren’t quite funny enough to be forwarded around. But in a way, it might have been better if it had made good on its threat of a class menagerie. It would be repugnant, but it wouldn’t be as nearly as insulting as suggesting that a good way to help people improve their social class is to mock their behavior.
The silver lining of "We Got To Do Better" is that it seems to be the latest step in the lengthy process of "Hot Ghetto Mess" creator (and the show’s executive producer) Jam Donaldson figuring out that her original concept was flawed. When the site started in 2004, it was a no-holds-barred, point-and-laugh gallery of poor blacks. But as criticism started pouring in, the site changed: now there’s a gallery called "Not Ghetto," featuring blacks that are making a difference, and one called "White Hot," to show that class issues are not limited to blacks. With the premiere of "We Got To Do Better," the streams of melted wax are starting to run off Donaldson’s wings, and it would be no surprise if "Hot Ghetto Mess" had to humbly take its place back in the seedy back alleys of the Internet.