Battling The 'Whitewash'

It's often said that the entertainment industry is driven only by the desire to make money, but that is plainly untrue. It is also driven by the desire not to lose it. As soon as the fall TV shows were announced last summer, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attacked the networks for underrepresenting minorities both in front of the camera and behind it. NAACP president Kweisi Mfume called the fall slate "a virtual whitewash" and led a six-month campaign, threatening to picket, to boycott the networks and their advertisers, and to seek federal intervention. Last week NBC suddenly got religion, and announced a plan to generate minority jobs. ABC followed quickly. As for CBS, the network had long been planning exactly the sort of program the NAACP was agitating for, Steven Bochco's inner-city hospital drama "City of Angels." The show boasts many skin tones—and very few whites. In the second episode, an arrogant surgeon tells the hospital's new medical director, Dr. Lillian Price (Vivica A. Fox), that she should name him chief of surgery because it would be daring and progressive of her to choose a minority. Price can't help but laugh at him—the surgeon's a white guy.

Serious black shows—"I'll Fly Away," "Under One Roof" —have traditionally foundered, so the fate of "City of Angels" will be widely scrutinized. "If the show does well, everything's peachy," says Blair Underwood, who plays surgeon Ben Turner. "If it doesn't, you might not see another black drama for a long time." Bochco has a formidable reputation, having produced "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue." But it doesn't help that a hospital drama, "ER," towers over prime time. And it doesn't bode well that a competing medical show, "Chicago Hope," is on life support. Why a hospital show? "The staple of any hourlong drama is a courtroom, a cop show or a hospital show," says Bochco. "There's no other place to have one. I'd done both the cops and the courtroom already."

"City" is far more earnest than "ER," more concerned with characters and less addicted to momentum and medical-speak. Price arrives at the beleaguered Angels of Mercy, in Los Angeles, flush with ideals. Soon, she's squashing a potential scandal when an unconscious patient is accidentally sent to the morgue, and confronting an old flame, Dr. Turner (Underwood). "City's" notions of romance and comedy are pretty pat—in the second episode Price and Turner find themselves in a supply closet, soaking wet—but there are lots of gritty dramatic moments. Fox is still trying to find her character. Underwood, however, brings both sexiness and gravitas to his role. "It's such a joy to come to work in the morning," says Fox. "It's so wonderful to see all the colors of the rainbow there who know what you're about. I mean, just the basics of having people who understand my hair—and how it should be combed and how a black person should be lit on camera. It's a blessing. Diversity is a beautiful thing."

Bochco has wanted to do a show like "City" for many years, having been knocked out by the number of gifted black actors who'd passed through "Hill Street Blues." It's not unusual for a black drama to be canceled after four episodes if it struggles in the ratings. Fortunately, "City" will have time to find its audience: CBS has committed to airing 13 episodes, at least half of which will be directed by African-Americans. Bochco believes some black shows have failed because they played the race card too often. "I think the shows sometimes end up about being black instead of about being human. Race is a big part of [our show] but nobody wants to be beaten over the head with it."

Will the other networks follow CBS? Will NBC and ABC follow through on their promises to the NAACP? NBC has agreed to internships and scholarships—and vowed to add a minority writer to every new show that lasts more than a year. ABC says its plan is even broader. "We go through this every year," says a black TV actor. "They make changes for six months, and then it's back to the way it was. I have no faith this gesture is sincere, and I'm on a network show. They could give a s--t—I see it every day." An NBC spokeswoman insists the changes will stick: "We have a signed agreement with the NAACP, and the network's committed to seeing it through."

So is the cast of "City of Angels." "I've been telling everyone, particularly black folk, 'You've gotta watch this show'," says Underwood. "We've finally got something to tune in to."