For more than three seasons, "Moesha" has been one of the very few success stories for the struggling UPN television network. The comedy series, which centers on Moesha Mitchell, a black, middle-class girl who's currently a college freshman, has favorably portrayed parental authority and family life and taught sound lessons about morality, honesty, even religion. No, it's not completely squeaky-clean in the tradition of the classic '50s and '60s sitcoms - Opie Taylor never said of his school principal, "Boy, was he pissed!" - but it has almost always been suitable for all-ages viewing, a rare phenomenon indeed in the '90s.
All that, however, may soon be a thing of the past.
On December 6, Greg Braxton of the Los Angeles Times reported that "Moesha" soon will feature "more gritty and topical story lines." In one, Moesha's father may "reveal that Dorien [a 16-year-old boy living with the Mitchells] is actually his son, whom he had out of wedlock.while still married to Moesha's now-deceased mother." Other possible stories have to do with Moesha's losing her virginity and Dorien's "sleeping with a girl who says she's HIV-positive."
UPN entertainment president Tom Nunan told Braxton that when "Moesha" becomes "more honest and contemporary, it [will] perform better [in the ratings]. Many viewers have written it off as [being like] a Saturday morning show that is too tame for their interests." In other words, the network is gambling that the number of viewers drawn by the changes will exceed the number of disappointed family viewers who abandon the new, edgy "Moesha."
While attracting a larger audience is obviously a goal worth pursuing, emphasizing stereotypes about black life isn't the appropriate way to go about it. Braxton quotes a "a source associated with 'Moesha'" as saying, "We are at a time when black people are begging the network to let us in and tell some real stories. But on 'Moesha,' we are still a victim of what the network wants to say about black people. They are selling out the show for ratings."
According to Braxton, series star Brandy and her mother, who manages her daughter's career, support these changes. Also, the prime-time drift away from wholesomeness affects most shows, whatever the racial makeup of the cast. But it's important to note the special pressures a black-oriented series faces, especially if it depicts a loving, intact, and at least somewhat prosperous family.
If a sleazier "Moesha" is "more honest and contemporary," does it follow that a version on which the characters behave properly is dishonest and outdated? To some, believe it or not, that's exactly what it means.
One of the biggest hits in prime time history, "The Cosby Show," which dealt with an upper-middle-class black couple and their children, was often criticized by liberals for being insufficiently "black." Not long after the show's 1984 premiere, a critic from the leftist Village Voice claimed that Bill Cosby "no longer qualifies as black enough to be an Uncle Tom." Then, in 1992, the year the series left the air, two University of Massachusetts professors published a book, "Enlightened Racism," which argued that "Cosby" and subsequent shows featuring successful black characters desensitized white viewers to the plight of real-life blacks.
At the time, there was a political motivation for such a thesis: to rebuke "Cosby" and its ilk for ignoring the black socioeconomic regression that took place under the wretched Reagan and Bush administrations. That regression never happened, of course, but facts rarely get in the way of extremist ideology.
The socioeconomic condition of the black community really hasn't changed since those awful Reagan years, but now, with a Democrat in the White House and bogeyman Newt Gingrich out of the picture, those leftist political voices are silent. Instead the focus falls on the more general question of the "authenticity" of black-oriented television shows.
Unquestionably, certain real-life black families experience something like what Moesha's family apparently will go through later this season. The point is that real-life black families resembling the pre-"gritty and topical" Mitchells exist in impressive numbers as well, and deserve prime time representation every bit as much.
No, they deserve it more. Television has the awesome power to move the soul, to challenge the heart. The good it could do motivating young blacks to reject the cultural meltdown enveloping society is immeasurable.
Unless, of course, the host network is committed to that meltdown, which UPN apparently is, and which is why "Moesha" is headed in that direction, too.