One night recently I watched an episode of Good Times. The plot dealt with the 11-year-old militant yet cherubic character, Michael, being suspended from school for telling his teacher that George Washington was a racist slave owner. As his mother chastises him, he protests, "Mama, 'boy' is a white racist word."
The rest of the episode dealt with the historical juxtaposition of Washington's ownership of slaves, his role as a Founding Father of this country and the hypocrisy involved. It was funny watching the family deal with that issue, the day-to-day management of the household, the haywire economy of the mid-'70s and the masking of black history in America.
Later, I tuned in to the much-ballyhooed Reed Between the Lines, which launched on BET on Oct. 11, starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Tracee Ellis Ross. The show has been touted as the answer to the dearth of black family sitcoms since Everybody Hates Chris was canceled. Then I brushed my teeth and quickly looked for another Good Times episode on YouTube.
It wasn't that Reed, with its phoned-in dialogue, wasn't trying, and it wasn't that some might find it to be a good program (seriously). But I didn't dig it for the same reason I don't dig so many television programs aimed at urban (read: black) watchers these days: There's no connection between the world outside and the people inside.
OK, OK. Before you go off on me, I realize that sometimes people don't really want heavy themes or monologues that inspire thunderous applause from the studio audience. For some, it's even a relief to see contemporary black people who do not seem to have dysfunction written into their familial script — even if the show is not funny.
But I miss black television that talks about issues relevant to my friends, my family and me. Maybe I'm missing something, but what's being offered — not just on television, but in pop culture targeted generally at African Americans — seems to talk perpetually about being "fabulous," "having swagger" or "knowing how we do."
Sitting through another (Insert rich but pointlessly idle theme here) Wives or a Real Housewives of (Insert hip but prohibitively expensive city here) to watch a group of train wrecks set the feminist movement back a century; or any reality show about an athlete and his ego, relatives of pop stars, competition for the hearts of onetime or wannabe celebrities; or the lifestyles of any number of C-list and D-list celebrities waiting for a comeback — as much fun as it once was — now strikes me as the most obtuse thing I could do with my time.
"So don't watch it, damn it! Turn to something else if you don't like it" is what I can hear fans and producers offended by what I'm writing here say.
Right now the unemployment rate among African Americans is 16.7 percent, the highest since 1984. More than half of all black male high school students drop out. Nearly twice as many blacks as whites lose their homes to foreclosure.
None of this is funny, but isn't there a way that television writers can treat these issues while making us laugh and at the same time not perpetuating stereotypes? Can we have television that makes us laugh at ourselves because we're familiar with the way characters would react to challenges like these?
"But we need more shows like The Cosby Show, and the reason they won't stay on the air is because black people won't watch them."
Two points there. First, Cosby was unique because of the talents of Bill Cosby. One demographic was already familiar with him through his work on I Spy and through his stand-up routines. Another younger demographic knew him through Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which anchored Saturday mornings on CBS for 12 years. So audiences were already prepared for Cosby's comedy to come to prime time.
Second, just because I'm black doesn't mean I'm under any obligation to watch something I don't think is entertaining, no matter who makes it. In fact, it's the obligation of the producers, writers and actors to make it worth my while. Entertainment is a competitive marketplace, just like any other. If it's not going to be compelling, then the arrow key on the remote gets pressed.
We live in a world that is clearly taking evolutionary steps in civilization. We're expecting that America will be majority minority in the near future; the economy is transforming itself into something none of us recognize; people from Boston to Bahrain are hitting the streets, angry about the wealthy keeping the world's wealth for themselves.
And the president of the United States is black, for God's sake!
Times have changed that much, and the most original black show I can find as I flip through the channels is one, buttressed with canned laughter, about a family living in New Rochelle, N.Y., nestled securely in the American dream that some charlatan tried to convince us was a universal norm back in the 1980s.
Here's the truth, though: There is no norm. We're all screwed up in some way. We all have to deal with this delightfully absurd world, and black folk have done it through imperfect methods that have kept us alive in this country for several centuries.
Now, that's some funny sh—.
Madison Gray is a New York-based writer and Web journalist. Follow him on Twitter.