UPN's new Tuesday night lineup might help the network achieve the TV producer's dream: a racially integrated viewing audience. America's boob-tube viewing preferences and TV-show casts are deeply segregated -- a divide that would trouble Martin Luther King Jr. and, for far less noble reasons, should trouble TV execs looking to make big bucks.
In this almost literally black-and-white world (Latinos, Asian Americans and other minorities don't seem to figure as strongly in TV execs' demographic obsessions), UPN looks the most poised to bridge the gap. The network already appeals to African Americans with sitcoms such as Girlfriends. And many of its shows -- Enterprise, WWE Smackdown! and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer -- probably draw some of the whitest audiences around. But these days, Buffy viewers who keep their hands off the clicker will be richly rewarded with more of the witty, politically conscious TV writing they've come to love -- but on a show with a primarily African American cast.
Although networks have rolled out numerous sitcoms featuring African American stars, UPN's new Platinum is a relative rarity: a hefty drama with a cast of color. Co-created by screenwriter John Ridley (Three Kings) and director Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), and executive produced by Coppola's father, Francis Ford Coppola, the hour-long show has more in common with The Sopranos or those juicy 1980s sagas of sex and greed, Dallas, Falcon Crest and Dynasty, than with The Bernie Mac Show. Platinum focuses on the family that owns Sweetback Entertainment, a scrappy hip-hop label struggling with dropping revenues and trouble from its big-time star, a volatile Eminem-esque rapper named VersIs (played by real-life rapper Vishiss).
When we first meet them, the two brothers who own Sweetback have their hands full. VersIs' latest video shoot has just gone way wrong: After an angry exchange, the rapper shot the video director in the butt. That means happy-go-lucky party person Grady Rhames (rapper Sticky Fingaz) is in the doghouse, too; as one of the Sweetback brothers, he was supposed to have been babysitting VersIs on the set.
The problems don't end there. The brothers also face the threat of a buyout, artist and lawyer defections, and a saucy younger sister (Davetta Sherwood as Jade) who likes to party -- and more -- with the married VersIs. The second episode brings a protest outside Sweetback's offices by an African American activist over the "unfair financial practices" of the music industry.
Platinum adds a hefty dose of familial complication to the mix. Grady and his upstanding, business-savvy brother Jackson (Jason George) are really half-brothers (due to the wandering eye of their father, who was married to Jackson and Jade's mother). Jade resents Grady, whom she perceives as having broken up her family, and she curls her lip and bites back furiously when he tries to play big brother to her.
For the most part, the family-drama aspect of the show coheres nicely thanks to strong performances by Sticky Fingaz and George. As the Sweetback brothers, the actors reveal a complicated and loving relationship: Underneath all the bickering and bellowing of a responsible brother and a flightier one is a deep respect and affection.
Some of the business intrigue doesn't gel quite as well, however. Platinum has that "ripped from the headlines" sensibility that is catchy at first, as audiences can applaud themselves for recognizing real-life quotations in the plots. VersIs, like Eminem, has a wife he "raps so nasty" about, as Jade says. Like producer-rapper-fashion designer P. Diddy, VersIs runs out of a club shooting; in that plot line, Jade stands in for Jennifer Lopez. The protest leader, meanwhile, is a caricature of the Rev. Al Sharpton. And so on. While the music biz's crazy theatrical aspect does provide easy fodder, I hope that Platinum's writers start weaning themselves from that ready-made script, carving out situations and dilemmas that are the Sweetbacks' own.
A little writerly laziness infects other aspects of the show: Characters are occasionally prone to preachy dialogue (on lopsided artist contracts), cheesy montages (of a happy family before the Rhames' patriarch started ho-ing around) and cartoonish violence (people get shot and dropped from buildings but don't die). And the female characters seem stuck in pouty, slutty, saintly or conniving modes; it would be nice if they were portrayed with the complexity accorded to the brothers, not to mention their dedicated white lead counsel, David Ross (Steven Pasquale).
Hopefully these elements will come into sharper focus in the course of Platinum's run. After all, the show has a strong foundation in place -- a visual style that will appeal to MTV viewers, dramatic heft for older audiences and humor that is strung together with psychological insight. Platinum's quick banter on racial issues -- interracial dating, for one -- also brings a much-needed, racially conscious touch to prime-time TV.
With this strong start, Platinum may be able to keep Buffy fans and lure viewers in from other networks. Platinum has enough buzz around it to be a new flagship for UPN and -- with its hip sensibilities, emotional punch and racial awareness -- a vital force among prime-time dramas. Good TV is good TV, after all. Hopefully that is something viewers of all colors can recognize.
Noy Thrupkaew writes about culture for the Prospect and TAP Online.