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Monday, April 22

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Airbags

Two of the biggest new TV series this season are NBC's Heroes and ABC's Ugly Betty. On the surface, they don't have much in common: "Save the Cheerleader, Save the World" is (justice) leagues away from the fashion battlefield. Betty Suarez might be a hero to her young nephew for working at Mode magazine, but she can't fly, read other people's minds or paint the future. However, both hit shows include a multicultural cast, and I'm not just talking about the token mystical negro or spicy Latina. Heroes travels from Tokyo to the United States to India and back again. The homophonic Hiro, a Japanese sci-fi geek who can travel through time, delights in his newfound powers and has emerged as the face of the show. Betty centers on the protagonist's Hispanic family from Queens, and two top editors — Vanessa Williams and Salma Hayek — at Meade Publications are African-American and Mexican, respectively.

Heroes and Ugly Betty also both feature Manhattan as one of the main settings. Top comedy Friends was often criticized for its whitewashed cast, especially since the six titular characters lived in New York City, where the 2000 Census broke down racial classifications as white non-Hispanics, 35 percent; Hispanics, 27 percent; Black non-Hispanics, 24.5 percent; Asian and Pacific Islander non-Hispanic at nearly 10 percent; and multiracial non-Hispanic, 2.8 percent. In Season 7, Gabrielle Union made headlines by being the first African-American love interest on the show; she simultaneously went out with Matt LeBlanc's Joey and David Schwimmer's Ross. She only appeared in one episode. Two seasons later, Aisha Tyler dated first Joey and then Ross before throwing Ross over for fellow Talk Soup alum Greg Kinnear. This story stretched over nine episodes, but race was never a large part of either storyline, if it was ever mentioned at all — I wasn't a big Friends watcher, so I don't know (somehow I doubt it) — which made the stunt castings even more apparent.

In a current CSI: Crime Scene Investigation multi-episode arc, character Greg Sanders was the first to the scene where a mob was beating up a man. He dispersed most of the crowd by driving close to the swarm, alarm lights flashing and sirens blaring, but one young man — an African-American — rushed Greg. Greg, who is Caucasian, reacted instinctively by tapping him with the car, trying to disable but not hurt the man. After the collision, the gang returned and retaliated against Greg. When the police arrived, the three men (Greg; the original victim of the attack; and Demitrius James, the man Greg hit) were all in serious condition. Greg and the man he saved pulled through, but the attacker didn't survive. At the coroner's inquest following the incident, a juror wanted to know if it was okay for cops to run over black kids in the street. The dead teen's mother and brother testified to his goodness and future potential. "This isn't a trial, it's a circus," Greg noted as reporters heavily played up the racial aspects of the case. In the end, the jury returned with an "excusable" verdict. The man Greg rescued called Greg a hero, but Greg didn't feel like one. The episode ended with the James family suing Greg in a civil suit for wrongful death.

This continuing storyline gives several characters the opportunity to discuss stereotypes and situations with each other. And since CSI is currently one of the most-watched drama series, dare I say this might foster intelligent discussion between families and friends? Or am I giving the audience too much credit?

Some people want their entertainment straight up, no moral qualms (see pretty much everything on The CW). Not that there's anything wrong with that. Case in point: One of the suburban couples on Desperate Housewives is Hispanic, and an African-American family moved in (and out) of the neighborhood last season. But remember: this is a world in which 5'2" Gabrielle is a former runway model and Vogue cover girl. Genuine reflections are less likely to be addressed when an opportunity for Teri Hatcher to flail about wildly to The Plinky Guitar Strings of Wacky Misunderstanding presents itself.

Another ABC juggernaut, Grey's Anatomy, features an ethnically diverse cast (as well as one incredibly wee, skinny woman). Creator Shonda Rhimes, however, is adamant about not playing the race card.

"I'm a post-civil rights baby. I'm not trying to make a point. This is just the way the world looks now," says Rhimes, 36, one of television's few female African-American series creators and show runners.

Rhimes…had grown weary of programs that feature just "one black doctor in the hospital and one black cop or one Latino detective on the force."

On "Grey's Anatomy," multiculturalism is a casual fact of life…

"There's never going to be 'a very special episode' of 'Grey's' about race. I hate that sort of thing," says Rhimes.

Is refusing to address race at all the best solution? Like it or not, even if "the world" for most of us looks less lily-white than it did in the past, racism remains a huge problem in the United States. Removing it from a series in which a large percentage of the main cast are minorities could be seen as counterproductive (think of all the potential realistic drama). Is this a step forward or a step back?

As for reality TV, there's still the Survivor brouhaha about separating the tribes by race. (Feel free to reread!) And don't forget the black sitcoms. It would be nice to think that television is becoming a more inclusive arena, and that as our nation becomes more multiracial and integrated, so goes our viewing options. But then I see Michael Richards — former fan favorite Kramer on Seinfeld — use an entertainment forum to stumble through a cringe-inducing apology for his inexcusable and ugly tirade (link NSFW for profanity), and I realize, unfortunately, there's still a long way to go, least of all in the entertainment business.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the CW's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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