In terms of cultural consumption, we live in two Americas: black people do not go to see movies like “Love Actually” in droves (or even in dozens), and white people are not the first in line to see “Big Momma’s House.”
Tyler Perry has had enormous success chronicling the lives of working- and middle-class African-Americans, relying on stereotypes that would seem more egregiously offensive if his plays, movies and television shows weren’t intended for black audiences. His TBS series, “House of Payne,” began with the premise that an attractive mother of two, the wife of a good and decent firefighter, would, seemingly prompted by nothing, turn into a crack addict. The show has a laugh track.
Until a few years ago, before Reginald Hudlin took over for a time, BET (Black Entertainment Television), which began in 1980, trafficked primarily in music videos — hip-hop and R&B and shake-your-groove-thing visuals — as well as standup comedy shows and sitcom reruns. But when the video model no longer became tenable, BET followed its compatriots VH1 and MTV into reality programming, often about the lives of the young, fashion-conscious and largely well-to-do and assumed the burden of correcting reductive portraits of black life.
“College Hill,” which begins its sixth season on BET on Tuesday, revolves around a shifting group of students thrown together in a big house, in the tradition of MTV’s “Real World.” In the past the students attended historically black colleges. This season the show is set in South Beach, with cast members from places like the University of Miami wearing Lacoste shirts and claiming, for instance, to love money above all. In an introductory video one woman, a flutist, cites her biggest pet peeve as bad grammar.
BET has closely followed the MTV and VH1 model, but while it has not totally dispensed with trash, its growing noble interest in performing racial P.R. leaves it feeling devoid of the exhilarating idiocy we love in shows like “The Hills.” As its competitive talent show, BET has “Sunday Best,” which travels around the country looking for the best gospel singers. BET’s “Baldwin Hills,” which concluded its third season last week, is set in the exclusive black Los Angeles neighborhood of the same name, a place where 17 means that it is time for a Mercedes as surely as it would in Brentwood.
But there’s a lot of disciplining on “Baldwin Hills”: parents are not merely present, they’re also reprimanding and grounding their children. In a recent episode, Etienne sheepishly asked his mother if he could go to a pool party, even though, technically speaking, he wasn’t supposed to be leaving the house, because earlier he had gone out at midnight to get a bite to eat without telling anyone.
His mother remains furious: “Do you deserve the option to go to Justin’s pool party? You don’t pay the bills here, you don’t pay the mortgage here and you’re 16 years old. Now maybe if you were contributing in some way to those things, I might say, ‘Go ahead, Etienne, jump in somebody’s car, take off in the middle of the night, don’t let anyone know where you’re going.’ ”
In another parent-child exchange a mother warns her daughter against trying to date a good friend’s ex on the grounds that it wouldn’t be nice and that the whole thing would seem pretty distasteful, as if distasteful weren’t the organizing principle of reality television.
And yet the show manages some genuinely affecting drama, even as it seems driven to impress us with certain standards of parenthood. This season Staci, a teenager who lives in far less privileged circumstances in the flats below Baldwin Hills, dealt with pregnancy and miscarriage. There seems to be an understanding on the show that class trumps race in the annals of misfortune.
“Harlem Heights,” which runs on Mondays and made its debut this month, is even more decidedly obsessed with glamour. Populated by ambitious editors, activists and aspiring designers in their 20s, the show takes place in low-lit bars and well-decorated apartments in the wealthiest sections of Harlem. It’s “The City,” if Whitney Port could identify Marcus Garvey.
The first episode captured the excitement in Harlem on the eve of Barack Obama’s victory, with cast members lining up before dawn to vote. Though mercifully, within a few weeks the euphoric mood of political purpose gave way to awkward dates, impressive displays of male arrogance and cat fighting: between Brooke and Ashlie, over what, I’m still not entirely clear. But good for Brooke for not caring about locution. As she explained to a friend after going out with a careerist she didn’t like, “You know how I hate it when dudes try to win you over by like, ‘This is what I do.’ ”
“Harlem Heights” may just have a future.