Because I am black that doesn't mean I have to deal
with the problems of all black people. That's
Taken simply as a catalogue of appearances by African Americans on television over the past sixty years, this book is perhaps adequate. It takes an exhaustive (sometimes exhausting) look at the role of black actors on primetime television, decade by decade. Bogle seems to have watched every episode of every TV show that ever featured blacks, from Beulah and Amos n' Andy in the early days, to the slew of UPN shows now, with stops along the way for hits like Julia,Sanford and Son, and The Cosby Show and the many all too brief series like Get Christie Love. He discusses all of them, not just the shows in general, but individual episodes, plus TV movies and black-themed episodes of white shows. Every snippet of TV history is held up and examined like an important fossil in the hands of a paleontologist. But, unfortunately, the various pieces never add up to a coherent whole; the book suffers from the lack of a thesis, from an unrelenting earnestness, and from a woeful absence of perspective.
The overarching problem is that Bogle does not seem to be operating from a defined principle. Is this a story about how African American images on television have evolved and gotten better, or at least more realistic, or is it about how things have really not improved ? How should blacks be portrayed on TV ? Have portrayals of Black America on television been better or worse than the reality of the times ? Have those portrayals been more stereotyped and less realistic than those of whites and other ethnic groups ? These are some of the questions that the author should have asked himself before he began writing and which the reader should expect will be answered by the end of the book. He did not ask and they are not answered.
As a result, Bogle's assessments and criticisms of each show occur in an intellectual vacuum and are often contradictory. Some shows are taken to task because they offered an unrealistic portrait of blacks as living in nuclear, middle class, nonpolitical families. Others are criticized for falling back on societal stereotypes of single parent households, poor families, involvement in crime, etc. If a police show has a black captain, that's unrealistic because blacks weren't put in positions of power. If the cop is black, it's unrealistic because he's middle class and an authority figure. If the crooks are black, that's a stereotype, placing blacks in a bad light.. Well, what the heck were the producers supposed to do ? And doesn't the mere fact that roles were being created for black actors mean something, on some level ?
At times, Bogle's lack of perspective, his blind focus on African Americans, comes across as almost laughable. In his discussion of the show The White Shadow, while complaining that the theme of a white coach having to lead troubled black youths is offensive, and worrying that the players were too often caricatures, he mentions the cast of characters and, without further comment, notes that the token white player was named Salami. Suppose the sole black player on a white team had been nicknamed Watermelon ? People would have been outraged, and rightly so. Had he paused for a moment to consider this one instance of insensitivity to another ethnic group, Bogle might have stumbled upon some of the larger truths about television : it's all caricature, stereotypes, and fundamentally unrealistic situations.
At another point he's discussing how Kinch wasn't given much to do on Hogan's Heroes and how we never got a sense of his inner life. Need I remind you that, to start with, this was a show about the "hilarious" hijinks that went on in a Nazi concentration camp ? In addition, it held up Germans, Frenchmen, etc. as objects of fun, in rude caricatures that no black person could have been portrayed in by then. Nor do I recall, though I hated the show and didn't watch it much, any real attempt to explore Hogan's secret self (perhaps a good thing, considering the ugly end that Bob Crane eventually met).
The failure to comprehend TV in general leads Bogle to make many other laughable statements or citations. In a section on the short-lived series Tenafly, he cites a critic's dismissal of the show as "Columbo in blackface." But, of course, where the popular Amos n' Andy radio show actually was done by white actors in blackface, it would seem noteworthy that a network created a vehicle, specifically for a black actor, which attempted to cash in on Columbo. Isn't there some sense of progress in the fact that blacks were getting these roles and that blackface was a thing of the past ?
Elsewhere, speaking of the inadequacy of the relationship and dialogue between Diahann Carroll and Fred Williamson on Julia, he says :
It's sheer fun to watch this sophisticated, mature
African American couple. Had the series cast them
Of course, television wasn't exactly groaning under the weight of that kind of white couple either. We can reserve judgment on whether Carroll & Williamson had the acting ability and chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy, two Hollywood greats by anyone's measure. We won't even dwell on the fact that the original Thin Man was created by Dashiell Hammett, one of America's great authors. The point is that TV has never, or extremely rarely, matched the level of dialogue that the Thin Man series in the movies had. The proper comparison is not to one of the great movie couples and their banter; more appropriate would be a comparison to a show like The Courtship of Eddie's Father or The Nanny and the Professor, which featured single white parents and had equally dull romances, plotlines, and dialogue. I've not had Bogle's advantage of rewatching all these old shows, but I wouldn't be surprised if Julia measures up to these similar white shows pretty well. And if you compare it to the most popular shows of its day, like The Beverly Hillbillies, which was actually shown twice a week in primetime for awhile, I think you'd prefer the image that Julia conveyed of black life, to the Hillbillies' image of whites.
Which brings us to one of the greatest shortcomings of the book : the seriousness with which it treats TV. I admit that like Bogle I grew up watching many of these programs. I too am from that first generation that came of age immersed in television. But its centrality in our lives, and in the culture, and the feelings of nostalgia that many of these old shows evoke, does not mean that television was ever any good. Many of the issues that Bogle raises--underdeveloped characters, too quick cancellation of interesting but unpopular shows, hackneyed plots, bad writing, recycled formulas, etc.--simply have nothing to do with race. They are a function of the mediocrity of the medium. Not for nothing has television been described as a "vast wasteland."
TV, with the unique pressures of its weekly schedule and the need to appeal to a mass audience, has always tended toward banality. In the effort to supply escapist entertainment, it has relied heavily on the mindless, the unchallenging, the consciously non provocative. Bogle stumbles upon this fundamental truth in his discussion of The Cosby Show, whose various problems he is seemingly constrained from criticizing because it is probably the most popular African American show of all time :
The audience understood that The Cosby Show
was not about contemporary politics. Rather it was
You probably have to read the book to get a feel for how jarring a note this strikes after 300 pages of complaining that innumerable marginal shows were insufficiently political. But it's important to note that Cosby, who had the #1 show on television, actually had the leeway necessary to turn his show into the kind of political platform that Bogle seems to think African American shows should have tried to be, and he did not take advantage of it. Why then expect the many minor and largely forgotten shows that he criticizes throughout the book--shows staffed by actors, writers, directors and producers who were after all just doing their jobs and which were just looking for an audience--to have engaged in some kind of exercise in black empowerment ?
In the end, this book is so limited in scope that, though Bogle does a workmanlike job of describing various African American series, it's hard for the reader to figure out what his point was in writing the book in the first place. It takes on the feel of a reference book, with encyclopedic entries, rather than a coherent narrative. It's occasionally fun reading about some of the old shows (including one of my favorites, The Young Rebels, sort of the Mod Squad set during the American Revolution) but the mere existence of such shows is not sufficiently interesting to carry the story, and because the author has no organizing themes or arguments that he's making, their existence is his whole story. That's not quite enough.
-BOOK SITE : Prime Time Blues (FSB Associates)
-INTERVIEW : The Interview: Donald Bogle talks about life of the late Dorothy Dandridge (Ruby L. Bailey / The Detroit News)
-REVIEW : of Prime Time Blues (John McWhorter, New Republic)
-REVIEW : of Prime Time Blues ( Joal Ryan, SF Chronicle)
-REVIEW : 'Primetime Blues' examines history of blacks on TV (Renee Graham, Boston Globe)
-REVIEW : of Prime Time Blues (Matthew Price, Lingua Franca)
-REVIEW : of Prime Time Blues (Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly)
-REVIEW : DOROTHY DANDRIDGE A Biography. By Donald Bogle (Mel Watkins, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Dorothy Dandridge (Robert Fleming, Book Page)
-REVIEW : of Dorothy Dandridge by Donald Bogle (Drink the River)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd