Two of the major networks' new hit sitcoms star black men. This would not have been news in the era of mass-market TV 10, 20 or 30 years ago, when white and black Americans alike would expend a few brain cells following the high jinks of Fred Sanford, the Fresh Prince and Steve Urkel. But in the mid-'90s, as the new "netlets" UPN and the WB added African-American sitcoms to draw an audience eager to see people on TV who looked like them, the big networks went even whiter. White folks watch Friends, and black folks watch Steve Harvey, so held the new wisdom, and never their channel surfing shall meet. (In 1996 the melanin-poor Seinfeld ranked No. 2 among white viewers and No. 89 among blacks.)
ABC's My Wife and Kids (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. E.T.) and Fox's The Bernie Mac Show (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) both star well-known black comics (Damon Wayans and the eponymous Mac). Both have predominantly white audiences. And both, says My Wife co-executive producer Eric Gold, might never have aired if not for the 1999 N.A.A.C.P. protests over TV's lack of minorities: "The diversity issue got right in the networks' faces, and that was when both shows got their shots."
The star power is obviously key to the success of the shows, but they have also taken up the mantle of traditional parenting that white sitcoms have shed. For years, TV's white parents have been crass (Roseanne), dumb (The Simpsons), even abusive (Titus). On My Wife and Bernie Mac, black dads don Ward Cleaver's authority-figure sweater. Wayans' grouchy suburban dad Michael Kyle is firm and in control--though, Wayans says, "a bit of a Neanderthal." Creatively, My Wife is one of TV's most nondescript sitcoms, from its familiar suburban-family premise to its plain-as-macaroni title, but its very blandness makes TV's skittishness about black comedy seem all the sillier.
Bernie Mac's premise is less traditional: a successful comedian--Bernie Mac--takes in his nieces and nephew after his sister develops a drug problem. But his toughlove philosophy of parenting is strictly old school. "Bernie Mac does not feel it is important to be your kids' friend," says creator Larry Wilmore--a sentiment that transcends color. Mac is both thoroughly black and raceless. Its aesthetic perfectly fits its black baby boomer protagonist (the smartly chosen sound track bursts with such soul hits as the Ohio Players' Love Rollercoaster). But like My Wife, Mac rarely mentions race--a sharp contrast to the netlet shows, which load their scripts with in-jokes. And unlike, say, The Jeffersons, the show treats Mac's wealth matter-of-factly, not as a setup for fish-out-of-water jokes (rich black people! imagine!). "Bernie Mac doesn't need to remind us that he's black," says Wilmore. "We know that already."
Even some of the more Afrocentric netlet shows might get past the perception that they are no-whites-need-watch zones if their networks didn't bolster it by scheduling them in blocks. UPN's Girlfriends (Mondays, 9:30 p.m. E.T.) has well-written black, white and biracial characters and a sophisticated take on race. Originally a salty, derivative takeoff on Sex and the City, it has matured into a perceptive look into the inner lives of four thirtyish black women. Creator Mara Brock Akil doesn't buy, though, that it's too "inside" for white viewers. "Look at Will & Grace," she says. "That show is so inside about gay culture, but it's a hit."