Monday, December 15, 2008

FLASHBACK: A Soap Goes Black and White 1989

A Soap Goes Black and White

By Jesse Birnbaum and Jeanne McDowell
TIME Magazine
March 27, 1989

The boy and the girl, college students, are seated in the campus hangout, holding hands, deep in conversation. The girl confides that she will spend the weekend with her biology professor; it is, alas, the price she must pay for a passing grade in biology. Same old soap opera, same old dilemma, and as with all such troubles, matters will eventually straighten out and soon worse crises will occur.

Yet there is something different going on here. The boy, Adam Marshall, is black; the girl, "Sam" Whitmore, is white. The Whitmore and Marshall families have been close for three generations, their lives as inextricably entwined as only TV can entwine. It is the sort of interfamily relationship that happens in real life only seldom and in television scarcely ever.

It will be less scarce next week, when NBC launches its new half-hour daytime serial, GENERATIONS. Viewers will discover that the Marshalls are not equal-opportunity walk-ons but as much a "real" family as their friends the Whitmores and as capable as any white family of bumbling into a melodramatic morass.

The question is, Will the audience go for an interracial soap opera? Perhaps so -- if NBC, lagging last among the networks in daytime viewership, can find the audience in the first place. The constituency keeps shrinking: the valued 18-plus female viewers are going out to jobs; advertising revenues are sluggish. Fighting back, the serials are dealing more and more with issues that were once controversial or plainly taboo: homosexuality, AIDS, child abuse, alcoholism, battered wives.

GENERATIONS' game is considerably more radical. A program integrating the two races as equal partners might just attract more viewers among blacks, who constitute a significant 20% of the daytime audience. "Nobody," says NBC entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, "had tried to create a show for a large black population that exists in daytime audiences. I thought we should do it." Serials, moreover, can be long-lived (GUIDING LIGHT is in its 37th year), and NBC thinks it has designed a breakthrough, "a new automobile for the late 20th century," says Tartikoff.

Though it is too early to tell if the network has produced an Edsel, the bodywork so far looks good. Generations' actors are largely veterans. Taurean Blacque (HILL STREET BLUES) plays family patriarch Henry Marshall, owner of a chain of five Chicago ice-cream parlors. Lynn Hamilton (THE WALTONS) is Henry's mother-in-law, Vivian, who years earlier was a servant in the Whitmore mansion. Her former mistress, Pat Crowley (Dynasty), is the lawyer Rebecca Whitmore, Marshall's attorney and a troubled divorcee. These three, along with members of both families, knot the skein of story lines in which soap fans so love to get ensnarled. The older generation has career and economic problems; the middle generation faces romantic difficulties; the youngsters are your typical mixed-up kids agonizing their way into adulthood in preparation for future disasters.

Some of the agonies will be related to racial issues, but that is not the purported focus of GENERATIONS. Rather, insists executive producer Sally Sussman, who created the series and supervises the scripts, "these are going to be stories of character and emotion. We didn't do this to exploit discrimination, interracial romance -- any of these predictable ideas." Still, if the series succeeds in illuminating those issues in a fresh way, GENERATIONS may well go on for generations.

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