TV Eye

If You Can't Join 'Em

A landslide of pre- mieres glided into living rooms across America last week, that is, unless you were participating in the brown-out which ended September 25. The brown-out was a boycott of the major broadcast networks, loosely organized by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), protesting the lack of diversity in prime-time programming. At press time, no hard evidence was available to determine whether the brown-out was successful, though one incident last week did show that NBC was at least concerned about their reputation with Latino viewers. In a preview copy of the Will & Grace season premiere, the sassy Karen (played by Megan Mullally) says to her Salvadoran maid Rosario (Shelley Morrison), "Hey, you're on the clock, tamale. Get to work."

Hijole! Talk about bad timing. The premiere, which aired Sept. 21, was early in the premiere week, but well into the brown-out.

Lynn Elber of the Associated Press wrote a story about the gaffe, which appeared in newspapers across the nation, including the Austin American-Statesman, which ran the story the day of the W&G premiere. But by the time the show aired later that evening, voila! The offending remark (the word "tamale") was removed.

The W&G example is certainly not the first time an unfortunate ethnic slur caused a stir. On the contrary, there have been other incidents that have gone by unnoticed.

In an early episode of Suddenly Susan (pre-Eric Idle), the hunky photographer Luis (Nestor Carbonell) tries to come on to a supermodel who happens into The Gate (the fictional workplace of SS). Coolly indifferent to his advances, the model finally spits, "Cool it, Zorro. You haven't got a chance."

I couldn't decide which was more offensive -- that the model reduced Carbonell's character to an ethnic caricature, or that she was idiotic enough to shun the dazzling actor.

Seinfeld had a long history of casting non-whites as exotic, wacky, weird, or unreasonable. The "Soup Nazi"; Baboo, the Pakistani restaurateur; and Papi, the Italian restaurateur with an incontinence problem, are three that come to mind. Of course, there were plenty of strange and exotic Anglo characters on the show, too -- Cosmo Kramer, played by Michael Richards, leading the way. No one took the show to task until late in its run, when Kramer set the Puerto Rican flag ablaze during a Puerto Rican parade. The ensuing protests from the New York Puerto Rican community prompted an apology from NBC.

Then there have been other annoyances that usually involve lumping various Latino groups into one. How many times have I cruised through the dial to land upon some reference to someone "Latin" using a sombrero, a Mexican blanket, a castanet-clapping flamenco dancer, or a troupe of Mariachi musicians? The cultural shorthand offends by implying that all Latinos are alike. But perhaps "offends" is not the right word. Actually, it's so prevalent, it's tiresome. Which may explain why so many of these missteps go uncommented on until a final straw breaks the camel's back -- think about the stink surrounding Dinky, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, or the Seinfeld episode mentioned earlier.

The fact of the matter is, Latinos continually don't see themselves in the media, and when they do, it's cast as the obligatory maid, prostitute, gardener, drug dealer, or gang-banger. And then there are those eye-rolling shorthand references mentioned earlier. Certainly, there are some exceptions. Benjamin Bratt, Jimmy Smits, Hector Elizondo, as well as Rita Moreno and John Leguizamo on HBO, have done much to alter the conception of Latinos as something other than the aforementioned stereotypes.

If nothing else, perhaps the brown-out raised the consciousness of some writers and network execs a couple of notches. Maybe second thoughts will be given to portrayals of Latino characters, what they say, and what is said about them. But better yet, as proponents of the brown-out suggest, maybe some proactive moves to diversify the decision-makers behind the scenes will take place. Will it happen? Maybe. Should it happen? Why not? As the press reminds us again and again, Latinos are a formidable market share. In other words, we spend money just like everyone else.

Personally, I take a wait-and-see attitude. In the meantime, I'm dying for the launch of the new Sí TV Network. Unlike Univision and Telemundo, Sí will be the first English-language cable network aimed at the much-sought-after 18-34-year-old audience. (Okay, so I'm out of the range, but I'm still curious.) The launch is tentatively set for June 2000, and there's no word yet on whether it will be available in Austin.

While some media watchers lament that splintering the TV-viewing public is a bad thing (a lament based in a nostalgic view of the "American" TV viewing public as one cohesive whole), I say "y qué." I enjoy ER, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, and Action as much as the next person. But it's good to know that a network is in the works to attract an English-speaking Latino audience which will make a deliberate effort to challenge stereotypes and provide well-developed programming, according to Jeff Valdez, a former producer and writer at the helm of the venture. "My goal is not to be known as a Hispanic channel. We want to be known as a place for good entertainment," Valdez said in an August interview in Hispanic Business magazine.

I sincerely hope that Sí is all it plans to be, because I'm tired of waiting for the regular nets to get a clue. If Sí can deliver, what a welcome wallop that will be. Hey, if you can't join 'em, beat 'em.

I had low expectations for

the Buffy spin-off, starring David Boreanaz as the sullen vampire with a conscience. I just couldn't conceive of Boreanaz carrying his own series. But the young actor rises to the occasion fabulously in Angel.

Supporting players Charisma Carpenter as Cordelia Chase (fresh from Buffy's Sunnydale) and Glenn Quinn as Doyle, a hybrid demon/human ("human on my mother's side") sent by unknown powers to point Angel in the direction of souls in need of help, are perfect complements to Boreanaz's brooding, but thankfully not always humorless, Angel.

After viewing a preview of the pilot, my only complaint is with the special effects. The make-up of the demons is B-movie quality. Faces transform into demons, but strangely, their hands remain Palmolive smooth. In a key scene in which Angel teaches a vampire how to fly, the suspension cord is plainly visible. To be fair, I viewed a rough cut. Maybe these glitches will disappear by air time.

As in Buffy, the fight scenes are expertly choreographed and the bad guys always get what's coming to them. The smart wit is there, too. The only problem is deciding whether to spend two hours on the couch Tuesday night, first watching Buffy, then Angel. Decisions, decisions.

The season premieres of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel are Tuesday, October 5 on the WB, 7pm and 8pm.

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