By Albert Samaha
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Years ago I vowed not to waste any more brain cells critiquing Hollywood versions of the black experience, but the sitcom, or better yet, "slave-com," The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer(UPN), has had me foaming at the mouth. After keeping the series afloat despite several weeks of rock-bottom ratings, UPN bowed to pressure from affiliates and, as of November 2, put Pfeifferon hiatus or as the Postaptly called it, "forced vacation."
And none too soon. This period farce, if you hadn't heard, starred Chi McBride, in a performance reminiscent of Bert Williams, the "noble minstrel" of the early 1900s. Pfeiffer was a black Brit who fashions himself an aristocrat and, dodging gambling debts, managed to wash up in Civil Wartime America as Abe Lincoln's butler. Meant as a lampoon of the Clinton White House, the show instead drew the ire of black groups who had labeled it and rightly so a send-up of slavery.
Here, Civil War America was nothing but Play-Doh for the Beavis and Buttheadgeneration; the war became a polite skirmish, slavery barely rated a mention, and the only black character, Pfeiffer, was a coddled butler who crossed the Atlantic on his own terms. Pfeiffer's Currier and Ivesstyle opening sequence, which showed nary a black face, said it all. The South was remembered as a peaceful fairytale, largely absent racial animus, and a prime setting to revisit good old-fashioned racist humor. On a network like UPN, whose young viewership is likely to possess a skeletal knowledge of history, this type of amusement seemed more than a trace irresponsible.
It's hard to recall TV fare slimier than Pfeiffer, with its Animal Housedigs about race and boorish disregard for what, to many Americans, is still a painful, all-too-recent history. (To think of my great-great-grandmother, a former slave whom I'm named after, alongside Desmond makes my teeth grind.) But the defense of the show, by TV critics and UPN, has become a sitcom even more demeaning than Pfeiffer.
First, the scuffle over the pilot. UPN bowed to protests and replaced the controversial pilot with another premiere episode. A gaggle of white critics chided UPN for pulling the pilot, called the protests laughable, and defended the series as harmless albeit leaden satire. Rumors circulated all summer that the scuttled pilot depicted a lynching. UPN insisted the so-called lynching was a hanging on British soil involving white characters. What the pilot definitely did include was a few tasteless darky jokes. (Trusted butler Pfeifferis told to get back to work because "the slaves haven't been emancipated yet.")
Though it was lost on critics, Pfeiffer's chief offense was not dusting off racist jokes, but its bewildering supposition that a Civil War story could be divorced from the atrocity of slavery, while treating race like a running gag. Yet to Caryn James at the Times, viewing slavery "glancingly" as a joke was "not malicious." Pfeiffer's fatal flaw, James and others argued, was just not being witty enough. Does this mean if Pfeiffer, which relied on slapstick, had done a better job of generating laughs the premise of the show would have been any less noxious?
Meanwhile, here at the Voice, critic Tom Carson heaped praise on Pfeiffer.Maybe Carson would have found the show's "cheerfully crass" treatment of history less palatable if he had watched the PBS survey Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery, which premiered opposite the sitcom. (Pfeiffermay have pretended that Lincoln's D.C. was a liberal oasis, but the documentary reminded us that it was the slave auction capital.) Carson makes even mainstream critics look good when he wrote that Pfeiffer's "racial issue" never crossed his mind. Unfortunately for many of us, there's no way it couldn't we still live it every day. Side-stepping gruesome history hardly qualifies as postmod invention as much as it is minstrelsy in new clothes.
A large part of the Pfeifferdefense has been to point out that butler Desmond, who also served as Lincoln's kitchen-cabinet advisor, is the show's smartest character, therefore the sitcom can't possibly be racist. Please, folks. This is the oldest trick in the book of black caricatures in Hollywood, from Bill "Bojangles" Robinson to Rochester to Benson: The servant who's smarter than the master but, how cute, still happens to be a servant. Pfeiffer's intelligence was an aberration, meant for our amusement, not to disturb the social order that placed him as lackey and Lincoln as head of state. That Hollywood can continue to present African Americans as the help while blacks account for nearly one-quarter of American moviegoers and dare call it innovative programming, is more unspoken conspiracy than charming coincidence.
Clearly the network's behavior in the Pfeifferaffair has only made matters worse. It did the p.c. thing, as in shelving the pilot, at the same time it sought to profit from all the brouhaha. (Ads boasted that critics hate the show so audiences will love it; they never mention, of course, what sort of critics felt this way and why.) And UPN has even tried to disavow the controversy altogether. A week before the show aired, Jetran a patronizing little "Open Letter to the African-American Community" from UPN defending Pfeiffer. It's "simply untrue," the letter stated, that the show makes light of slavery, again with no explanation why. Coming from UPN mockingly called "U People's Network" because of its simplistic portrayals of African Americans should we have expected anything else?